Listening (The Communication Superpower)
Often what we call listening is really just waiting for the next possible moment to speak.
In case you were wondering, they aren’t the same thing.
Listening requires us to recruit our attention and direct it towards the person we are listening to - without distraction.
It requires us to defer our desire to be heard, no matter how insistent or urgent that desire is.
And, it requires us to listen past the things we want to disagree with or get offended by. We do this by allowing these things to occur (your attitude will let you know if you’ve genuinely created permission or not). Should they occur, we don’t engage or react to them. We stay connected to the speaker so that we can get all the information that’s available to us to form an accurate perspective, rather than derailing early and filling in the gaps with our judgements.
Perhaps difficulty or even a dislike for listening developed when we were children, and we were told to “listen” in conjunction with being reprimanded. It became the thing we had to do when we couldn’t do what we wanted to.
This initiation to listening, whilst lacking, wasn’t completely off course: listening isn’t self-focussed.
In fact, listening can be inconvenient. You might have to stop what you’re doing. You might have to adjust your plans. You might have to slow down. You might have to hear about something you have little interest in.
Listening is a gift to another. It comes at a price for us.
And pretending to listen is hurtful. People can usually tell.
Listening is not pre-empting. It’s not predicting what someone will say. Pre-empting can be tempting when we’ve been in a relationship with someone for a long time and we’re confident in our predictions because we’ve got historical evidence. Stay curious about other people’s experiences of life. Be willing to learn something new. Be willing to be wrong.
Listening provides the best possible opportunity to gain the best possible information about a situation. Distress gets started in someone when they don’t know what their problem is or what they need. A listener is uniquely positioned to respond to this distress. And the person with the best information about a situation is often the person who comes up with the best solution to it.
Sometimes, people simply need to be listened to in order to gain security, stability, and strength to solve their own problems. That’s how powerful listening can be.
Unfortunately, we can sabotage our ability to listen by gearing into fix-it mode. Fix-it mode is where we bypass allowing space for someone to have their experience by deciding that we know what they need to do and we need to tell them to do it. Immediately.
Underpinning a habitual fix-it mode in people is usually an unwillingness to tolerate unpleasant emotions in themselves and in others. Someone who operates in fix-it mode is often coming from this position: “I’m not okay with you not being okay, because I don’t like how this feels to me. If I fix you, I’ll feel better”. People who operate in fix-it mode aren’t trying to understand the needs of others, they’re trying to meet their own.
Listening is entirely other-directed. You are not the focus.
Interested in improving at listening? Here’s a good start: speak less.
But listening is not just the absence of your voice. Because listening is not passive. Listening involves action: focussing on what the speaker is saying, taking in their words, making eye contact with them, directing your body towards them. Doing whatever enables you to be genuinely present – to be where your feet are - in the interaction.
Here’s to a world of skillful listeners. When we listen well, we naturally respond better to others. Improved communication strengthens connection. And connection is what we’re made for.