Active listening sucks!
It requires your full concentration, understanding and ability to remember what is actually said1 (not some other version of “the truth,” which you prefer to hear.)
Even now as you read this you find yourself on the receiving end of words that you should maybe be paying attention to.
Instead, you’re daydreaming about a hamburger with the works (hold the pickles, please) that you ordered for pick up at Shake Shack, or some other non-priority shit that occupies your thoughts for the greater part of the day.
If only this person would shut up, you think, I might actually get to Shake Shack in time.
ARE YOU LISTENING?
Look, I get it.
You can only commit to fragments of a conversation by way of text messaging and DMing.
You drop pronouns.
You substitute words with emoticons.
And yet you expect others to understand your complex and wildly nuanced thoughts.
Except, they won’t.
So, it might behoove you to not only listen to bits of information but to ask for clarity when you’re dumbstruck (to avoid confusion), to engage your speaker (who deserves your full attention and respect) and to listen intently to the words they spew like little pieces of a puzzle (that you may then piece together for the sake of understanding.)
AND THE SALESPERSON OF THE YEAR AWARD GOES TO…
There’s a reason why salespeople put their active listening skills to use. It helps them identify the subtext behind words and phrases, thereby uncovering the emotions behind said words and phrases.
(Emotions drive decisions.2 It’s the kind of shit that wages war between rival nations or sparks feud among lovers.)
When it’s their turn to speak, an effective salesperson might say things like, I hear you, or I get it, or I understand why that’s important to you. Although they’re looking to make a sale, this doesn’t mean that their efforts to actually listen and provide a valuable service are disingenuous.
So, like the savvy salesperson, we, too, can practice active listening skills like pros.
But first, we must set the intention to actually listen.
To my point, will you indulge me in a brief tale about a crumbling telescope?
SOUNDS FROM OUTER SPACE
Since 1963, the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico has had its ear pointed at outer space.
Constructed on a sinkhole in the middle of a lush tropical forest, its role in the SETI program — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — has been essential in mankind’s ambitious attempt to discover alien lifeforms in the vast universe.
(That’s right, folks. The search for E.T. continues!)
But on the morning of August 10th, 2020, one of the 18 cables that suspended this 900-ton structure snapped, forever altering its fate.
Four months later at 8 AM on December 1st, the 330-yard dish made a sound of its own when it came crumbling down in an uproar of cracked steel and broken concrete.
Around the world, accomplished astronomers and space fanatics mourned the loss of this great telescope, which once served as a symbol of humankind’s audacity to defy the limits of space exploration and seek answers from “the beyond.”
And while the Arecibo Telescope was listening around-the-clock for a sound that may or may not exist, we humans blundered in our attempts to listen to each other — I mean, to really listen — resulting in much unfollowing and unfriending across social media platforms, quarreling amongst friends and partners, and botched orders at Shake Shack, including a certain burger with extra pickles when you specifically asked for no pickles!
Why can’t they listen?!
5 ACTIVE LISTENING SKILLS TO IMPROVE YOUR WELLBEING
Why bother listening empathetically, compassionately and with intention?
Well, dear reader, perhaps you’re unaware that active listening skills are crucial for your mental wellbeing.
According to PositivePsychology.com, “pleasant social interactions increase our personal wellbeing and provide greater life satisfaction. One of the easiest ways to increase our wellbeing is via listening — actually listening.”
So, let’s practice my curated list of 5 active listening skills, shall we?
Who knows? They might end the wars in your life that keep you from experiencing long-lasting joy.
1. Make eye contact.
By keeping a healthy balance of some good ‘ole eye contact, you can demonstrate your willingness to listen and focus on the topic at hand. And your speaker will appreciate you for the kind gesture.
But careful not to bulge your eyes out of their sockets and look like a bonafide psycho.
To avoid coming off like a huge creepazoid, stick to the 50/70 rule, which calls for keeping eye contact 50% of the time while speaking and 70% of the time while listening.
Also, don’t try to fool others with a vacant stare so that you can drift away with your thoughts inconspicuously. Your speaker is any the wiser about this dead-in-the-eyes look that you wish to pass off as a totally-with-you-bro look.
Show some respect, for crying out loud!
2. Give a fuck.
We often pretend to listen to things that we deem unimportant simply to appease the speaker, not because we actually give a flying fuck.
We say, yeah, uh-huh, mmm, you don’t say? and even scroll through our social media feeds during an active conversation under the pretext that we’re excellent multi-taskers.
We nod impulsively, knowing that it’ll be that much easier to move on once the conversation’s over. And we hope to god that whatever’s being said won’t matter in the slightest and that it won’t come back to haunt us.
But then we’re caught red-handed:
“What did I just say?” the speaker says with their arms akimbo. (Your yeahs, uh-huhs and mmms won’t save you now!)
This is another reason why you think that active listening sucks. You have to sit there and listen to unrequited love, parking lot injustices, or whatever else is of no interest to you.
But if you care about the speaker at all — judging by the minimal amount you require to care for someone — you would make space for them in your mind, so to speak, and listen to what they have to say. Wouldn’t you?
Just as you would reach a compromise with your partner by taking a shower pre-coitally, I think you can muster the minimal amount of focus you require to listen.
3. Wait your turn.
“We may believe that we are good listeners, but listening is more than waiting for your turn to interrupt.” – Simon Sinek.
As kids, we’re taught to wait our turn to play on the seesaw or jump in the bouncy castle.
As adults, we seldom wait for others to finish speaking before we cut them off to offer our viewpoints.
I mean, god forbid we forget what we want to say during the speaker’s 8-minute soliloquy about a simple mishap with their Shake Shack order!
So, if you find yourself wishing to interrupt someone for fear of losing your own train of thought, I would urge you to take notes on your phone, a piece of paper, or whatever else you can find to preserve the other person’s train of thought.
On the other hand, if you’re able to compartmentalize these argument points in your mind without taking notes or interrupting the speaker, then kudos to you my friend!
Use this invaluable skill to maintain a good cadence in your conversations and achieve a better understanding between you and the workers at Shake Shack (and maybe forget about the whole pickle incident.)
If curiosity killed the cat, then assumptions killed the dog.
Paraphrasing can help you stop making these assumptions and actually grasp what was said.
“Let me get this straight” is a great starting point. Use this to begin your line of questioning and reel in the subtext like a champion fisherman.
But don’t merely echo words back to the speaker.
Instead, try putting them in your own words (which is the whole point of paraphrasing.)
Doing so will not only demonstrate to the speaker that you’ve registered what they said. It will also one-up them by showing your desire for clarity and your intent to stay on the same page.
5. Ask questions.
A wise person once said, “the only dumb question is that which is not asked.” (Unless you’re asking whether or not it’s safe to drink Listerine.)
When following up with thoughtful questions, you don’t need to get all “therapy-y” or “dig deep” for that matter. Simply asking how the topic at hand makes the person feel, or if they could’ve done anything differently, or what they intend to do in the near future, for instance, can help achieve a better understanding of the true emotions behind the speaker’s words and phrases.
What’s more, this practice is meant to keep you from hijacking the conversation and making it about you, when it certainly ain’t about you. Like, at all.
Sociologist Charles Derber of Boston College refers to this as “conversational narcissism,” which is supported by the “shift response” technique. (Congratulations, dear listener! You’ve just shifted the emphasis of the conversation onto you!)
So, rather than saying/asking, “OMG, I hate it when Shake Shack gets my order wrong, too. I mean, how hard is it to hold the damn pickles?” you might want to ask the speaker if they’re allergic to pickles or if it’s even worth beating this dead-horse-of-a pickle issue rather than moving on to a new subject.
THERE’S BEEN A TERRIBLE MISUNDERSTANDING
Will you always listen without being a Judgemental Judy?
Will you always be listened to so that everyone will agree with whatever you have to say?
Misunderstandings will always be an integral part of your daily conversations, even as you strive to reduce the chances of misconstrued words by aiming for clarity 100% of the time.
That said, we can certainly employ active listening skills to better understand one another. Better yet, we can employ these skills to better understand ourselves.
If a particular subject isn’t interesting to you, thus rendering your level of focus non-existent, then ask yourself, why is that?
What is it about this subject that you can’t fathom listening to?
Is it boring? Do you disagree with it? Does it make you want to poke out your bulging eyes?
Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad. And maybe that’s what you should discuss with the speaker.
I’m sure they’ll listen.
- “Active Listening Presentation.” (2014, Jul 11.) https://www.slideshare.net/kdbourque/active-listening-presentation-36893005
- Lamia, M. (2010, Dec 31). Like It or Not, Emotions Will Drive the Decisions You Make Today. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/intense-emotions-and-strong-feelings/201012/it-or-not-emotions-will-drive-the-decisions-you