Listening well is a superpower

Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking. —Bernard M. BaruchIn addition to being a financier and statesman, Baruch played an important role in the management of World War I, influencing Democratic congressional leaders from 1918 to 1948, and consulting with Democratic presidents on occasion. For half a century, Bernard Baruch was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country, according to historian Thomas A. Krueger.

If you want someone to meet you where you are, meet them where they are first.

The way to find out where they are, is to listen.

Why is listening such a powerful skill?  What challenges make it difficult?  And how can you master this super useful skill?

Why it's important

  • There are very few genuine listeners in the world. The rarest gem is not worth as much as someone who truly listens and tries to understand.  
  • There are many amazing and interesting stories out there. Few conversations will be boring. In fact, you can tell whether you are really listening by the way the conversation goes. If it is boring, chances are you aren't.
  • The skill of "active listening" is considered one of the skills that makes you more employable in the most desirable jobs.
  • Active listening helps you negotiate more effectively.
  • It builds better relationships with family, friends, and colleagues.
  • The quality of your life improves.
  • The benefits extend beyond any particular profession.
  • You gain trust by understanding others' perspectives.
  • You can prevent misunderstandings.
  • You become a better team player.
  • It makes you a better partner.
  • All around, you become a better person.
  • When you open yourself up to listening to others, they will be more open to listening to you. In fact, not listening to others could result in our ideas and opinions being completely ignored.
  • Everyone wants to feel valued, understood, and accepted. Listening lets us give that to them.
  • It is a valuable relationship-related currency.
  • When people feel valued, they tend to perform better.

Listening is not the same as agreeing. Listening does not obligate you to take any particular action. If anything, it will lessen the intensity of people's insistence that you take a specific action. Most often, they want proof that you've heard them. Therefore, if they feel you've truly heard them, their need for action diminishes.

Researchers have found that people who ask more questions, particularly follow-up questions, are better liked by their conversation partners.Huang, K., Yeomans, M., Brooks, A. W., Minson, J., & Gino, F. (2017). It doesn’t hurt to ask: Question-asking increases liking. In Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 113, Issue 3, pp. 430–452). American Psychological Association (APA).

Author Eric Barker asked John Gottman, a renowned expert on love and relationships, what the best way to improve a relationship would be. His answer? 

Learn how to be a good listener.

According to author Tim Hast,Powerful Listening. Powerful Influence. Work Better. Live Better. Love Better: by Mastering the Art of Skillful Listening, about half of all employees leave their jobs because they feel that their boss is not listening to them.

Types of listening

There are many kinds of listening. Enjoying the sound of a song, for example, is an example of appreciative listening. Biased listening occurs when the listener only hears what they want to hear.

In most cases, what determines our mode of listening is whether we listen (1) to strengthen a relationship, (2) to help someone, (3) to gain information, or (4) to protect ourselves.

I won't list all the types of listening I know here. Our main focus will be on listening modes that support one of the four goals above.

In evaluative forms of listening, we tend to make judgments as we listen. In some cases, this can be useful and in others, it can be unhelpful.

Self-protection through biased listening is maladaptive. Instead, listen critically, analyzing what is being said and relating it to your existing knowledge and rules, while also taking in what the speaker is saying. It is important to decide which of the speaker's words to accept and which to treat skeptically.

As a result of our desire to protect ourselves, we can be less effective when we listen. At times, this is a worthwhile tradeoff. In contrast, for us to strengthen our relationship with someone or help them, trust is crucial. This requires us to suspend judgment for a time.

Modes of listening that aid us in these goals are:

  1. Comprehension listening, also known as content listening, informative listening or full listening
  2. Deep listening
  3. Empathetic listening
  4. Relationship listening

Let's briefly consider what each involves.

Comprehension listening means focusing on understanding what is being said. This is more than just waiting for the other person to finish so you can continue talking. Other levels may also be included:

  • Making sure you fully understand the message
  • Identifying underlying meanings
  • Carefully observing body language

Deep listening includes all aspects of comprehension listening. It is grounded in a solid understanding of psychology. It also includes aspects that go beyond comprehension listening. For example:

  • Identifying the needs and goals of the speaker
  • Understanding the preferences and biases of the speaker
  • Recognizing the speaker's values and beliefs

Understanding, and even feeling, the emotions of the other person is the aim of empathetic listening. Empathetic listeners strive to understand the other's perspective. They ask questions in a way that encourages self-disclosure.

Relationship listening is closely related to empathetic listening, but it's also about creating and nurturing connections. It contributes to close relationships. The same approach is also useful when dealing with relationships involving influence, such as in negotiation and sales. During relationship listening, you are focused on things you have in common with the other person.

Challenges and principles

We instinctively want to voice our disapproval when someone says something that we don't agree with. Keeping our opinions to ourselves takes patience and courage. This is because we feel threatened when someone says something we don't agree with. 

Good listeners don't agree with everything they hear, but they do seek ways to validate the other person: "I can see why you feel that way." "I think that's a common viewpoint." They reserve the right to challenge what they hear, but they wisely wait until they fully understand the other person's perspective first. Listening is challenging because it requires restraint, which is a superpower in itself.

Silence is golden, not awkward

The concept of "awkward silence" often prevents effective listening. A person may need time to think about what they want to say next. Perhaps they want to say something, but struggle with the desire to protect themselves. If you are silent, you give them a void to fill, and they will tend to say what they are thinking.

Read my lips, not my mind

While it is obvious that we can't read another person's mind, to listen effectively, both speaker and listener should be aware of this fact. Instead of assuming, the listener should be asking questions. And sometimes the speaker needs to be reminded, kindly, of this fact.

Curiosity is the key

One of the most important aspects of listening is genuine curiosity. There is a story, a bit of wisdom, or a potential opportunity hidden in everyone we meet. By focusing on finding those rather than sharing our own perspective, we can listen well. In The Sales Acceleration Formula, Mark Roberge writes:

Great salespeople are naturally curious. They ask great questions, listen intently, and probe into points of interest.

You should aim to learn something new about the other person each time you speak with them, regardless of how long you've known each other.

Curiosity is the key to avoiding most of the common bad listening habits:

  • Interrupting
  • Getting distracted
  • Making the speaker feel they are wasting the listener's time
  • Finishing the speaker's thoughts for them
  • Topping the speaker's story ("That reminds me...")
  • Obsessing over the details
  • Understanding the words but missing the real meaning

How to become a better listener

Let's put these principles to work.

Give complete attention to the other person

If possible, eliminate distractions. Turn your phone off and try to talk somewhere you're less likely to be interrupted. 

Be determined not to make any statements or add your own opinions. You can do that later. This is the time to really understand the other person first.

Be a detective. What is the other person's story? What is their point of view? What can you learn from them?

Strive for mutual understanding

Don't assume the other person knows the purpose or subject of the discussion.  Make sure you are on the same page by asking questions.

Try to gain the other person's perspective

What is the listener thinking and feeling? Strive to see their point of view without any judgment. Look for ways to validate their thinking and emotions. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Where are they coming from? Ask, "What is it like to be you?" but not in those words.

Meeting the person where they are means exploring with them what they are feeling. Embrace any pain or discomfort you are feeling and focus on understanding their feelings. For as long as it takes, let your world revolve around them.

Find out what's important to them

People usually provide "free information" during conversations. For example, if you are discussing the weather and someone mentions a recent, weather-related incident, you can bet that the incident has meaning for them.  Asking questions about it will help you discover things that are important to them. Author Mark Goulston writes,Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone

Eventually, one of your questions will click and you’ll see the person lean forward eagerly to tell you something with enthusiasm or intensity. When that happens, do the right thing: Shut up. Listen. Listen some more. And then, once the person reaches a stopping point, ask another question that proves that you heard (and care about) what the person said.

Look for the underlying message

  • Watch out for implicit assumptions in the speaker's words.
  • Watch for non-verbal messages. Observe their body language. Does it match what they are saying?
  • Try to detect emotional content in their speech. Respond to their emotions rather than what they say.

Keep them talking

Because your curiosity is motivating you, you want to hear all they have to say on the topic.

The less you say, the better.  Adding short responses occasionally is helpful: "I see," "Uh-huh," "OK," etc. Make sure your body language reflects your interest (which is easy if you are genuinely interested). Nods and smiles encourage the speaker to continue.

When they pause, you can ask clarifying questions.  Examples:

  • What did you do next?
  • How did that happen?
  • What do you mean when you say...?
  • Who said what to whom?

Note that these questions involve the words "who, what, where, when and how," which encourage brief, factual answers. Avoid asking "why," which can derail the person's train of thought.

Sometimes we don't have a question in mind.  We can ask, "What happened after that?" or simply say, "Tell me more."

A skilled listener is not only good at keeping the other person talking, but at keeping themselves from jumping in too early. Remember, silence can be very useful. Use a pause to:

  • Leave a gap for the other person to fill
  • Think about what you have just heard
  • Get your emotions under control

Summarize to make sure you understand

This is the only part of listening where talking is truly valuable. Words have multiple meanings, and our current perspectives color what we hear.  So it's wise never to assume we understood the message.

The most effective way to assure understanding is to summarize what we heard in our own words:

  • "If I understand you correctly, you are saying..."
  • "Let me see if I've got this straight."
  • "So your main point is. . . Am I correct?"

When they are making a general argument, ask them for, or suggest, relevant examples.

If you succeed in expressing the other person's viewpoint better than they can, you will know you are listening. You should aim to impress your audience not with what you have to say, but by how well you comprehend what they are saying.

Depending on the circumstances, you may need help to determine whether you have heard everything the other person has to say. A skilled listener will often ask, "Are there any other questions I should have asked?" 

Choose the right time to respond

Take a deep breath. Congratulate yourself for waiting for the right time to speak. You earned this opportunity because you have:

  1. Given your complete attention to the other person
  2. Sought to understand the other person's perspective
  3. Looked for what is important to them
  4. Given thought to any underlying messages
  5. Allowed the person to be fully heard
  6. Let them tell the story their way
  7. Summarized their points to make sure you understood correctly

Now that you've heard the other person out, you can share your viewpoint with them. As people naturally tend to reciprocate, they will be much more likely to listen to you.

Listening to gain information or to promote a relationship may not require adding your own perspective. It is enough to thank them for sharing their thoughts with you. 

If your motive is to help or persuade the other person, you are now well-equipped. Nevertheless, you will find that listening will continue to play an important role in your efforts. 

Perhaps you went into the conversation feeling that the other person had a problem you could help them solve, or perhaps an opinion you could share. As you listen, you may realize that your approach needs to be changed. However, you are now qualified to offer a description of the problem, not a solution. Even if the other person agrees with you, you need to work together to find a solution. A person is more likely to implement a solution if they feel that it came from their own ideas. 

Give it time

As you can see from the above, listening effectively takes a lot of time. That's one reason it is such a rare skill. We are in a hurry today, and we tend to determine our success by how quickly we see results.

Listening carefully to others may yield immediate results. For one thing, they'll be much more likely to listen to us. Most of the benefits, however, will come over time.

A person who feels like they're being heard is more likely to accept the information you share with them, but not necessarily right away. They often need time to think about it, and it may take several sessions before what you have to say to them starts to sink in. But when it does, you will feel incredibly powerful. Changing someone else's mind is a rare event.

We also need to be patient with ourselves. Even the best of listeners sometimes get distracted, thinking about what to say next, getting emotionally derailed, or even jumping in with their own story. This is not failure. It's normal conversation.

Change happens slowly, so don't get impatient with yourself.  Try this:

  • Congratulate yourself any time you follow one or more of the steps above. You are making progress!
  • If you catch yourself judging someone, ask yourself why you feel threatened by what they are saying.
  • Try practicing listening to others talk on subjects you don't agree with.  Instead of arguing with them, ask them how they came to believe what they do.  You may discover that you didn't know as much as you did about the issue, or the other person may realize as they explain their beliefs to you, that they didn't understand them as well as they should.  Either way, it's a win.
  • Try to find people who are good listeners and spend time with them. Observe what makes them effective. Benefit from their training and express appreciation for what they do.