The Art of Listening

The Art of Listening

Easy or not so much?

Listening seems dead simple, doesn’t it? But is it really? Check with some short exercises. Spend one minute experiencing it. I will set our timer. Don’t do anything during this time, just listen to the sounds of the world you are in. Your only task is to listen. And then we continue.

So, how was it? When I first did this exercise, it seemed to me that this was the longest minute in my life! I recalled a long list of things I had to do and my thoughts were running towards planning and recalling events from the previous day. I started feeling annoyed that I was wasting my time and actually became a little bored. It is not easy to focus attention on the very physical act of listening, let alone when the other side is a living person, and when we want them to show that they matter to us. Or even worse, when we don’t agree with them at all!

Just Listen 

Are you surprised by the fact that the most valued conversation is the one where people feel that somebody is “simply” listening to them? The need to be listened to is connected with a strong sense of acceptance, respect, being taken into consideration. When – for instance – I conduct mediation, even in the most difficult matters, there is a moment when one side becomes curious to hear what the other side is saying. Do you know when? When a given side feels heard. When they are not heard, emotions like grief and anger or fear are on the surface.

Often, reproaches about a lack of understanding concern the quality of being listened to. “You don’t understand anything at all”, is quite frequently a complaint that somebody avoids eye contact during a conversation, or glances at the newspaper or phone, averts their eyes and does something else or pretends that they are listening but in fact all they want to do is force their solution. When somebody has the impression they are not being listened to, anxiety can be triggered, lowering self-evaluation, and there is a rapid drop in this person’s willingness to connect with the other side and even to consider them. It is worth remembering that listening has rewarding and empowering significance and is an effective motivational tool. 

When are we sure that somebody is listening to us? This is my list of signals of mindful listening.

“The Happy Seven” things to be a Good Listener:

1. Being silent 
The first prompt is slightly banal, but proven: speech is silver, silence is gold. When you listen, the majority of your attention is focused on the interlocutor, so by the force of things, you use fewer words. Have you noticed that closed-mouth people are usually believed to be the best listeners?

2. Nurturing connection
The second one seems quite obvious: people tend to believe that we are listening to them when we are in eye-contact with them and we send non-verbal signals of our interest (nodding the head, leaning forward towards the listener, facial gestures in harmony with what we are hearing, focusing on the person speaking). Still, it is not so simple. Everyone of us, with a million things on our mind, their own views on life, a ton of unfulfilled needs, loads of “distractors” (during a conversation can you stand the sound of the phone ringing and not being picked up?) and to top it all – little time, knows how difficult it is to be in full connection and mindful for a longer time in a conversation. It requires quite a bit of energy! Next time when somebody listens to you with their whole self, treat it as a beautiful gift.

3. Following the interlocutor 
We very often think that we know our interlocutor, so we know what they feel, think and need. Secondly – that during the conversation we think we also have to take a stand, to do something, we have to help. We don’t. People don’t always expect advice. When somebody expects it, they ask for it themselves (“What would you do in my place?”; “What do you think about it?”; “What should I do?”). If people don’t ask for it, you can assume that this person simply wants to be listened to. This never hurts and is the sacred foundation for future conversation.

4. Helpful words 
The fourth prompt leads us into the land of words. Just a small hint here. Although silence is gold, in order not to lose the track of the conversation or help another person get in contact with what’s important for them, it is sometimes worth using helpful phrases. They also give your interlocutor certainty that you are listening to them carefully.

Helpful phrases:

  • So, let me just get it straight … (say it in your own words what you heard e.g. “Do I understand you well that in your opinion there are mistakes in this report?”).
  • You said that … (say in your own words what you heard e.g. “You said that I made a lot of mistakes in this report…”).
  • When you say … do you mean that … (and summarise from the conversation what is the most important and try to refer it to a specific detail, e.g. “When you say that I completely let you down, do you mean that I made a mistake in the report?”).
  • From what I hear, … (refer to the emotional state of your interlocutor (e.g. “From what I hear I feel you are sorry”, “From what I hear, you are upset”).
  • Summing up … (you collect information, e.g. “Summing up, I made two mistakes in this report, one is the data in the table, and the other mistake is the description, and I have to correct them within one hour”).

5. Understanding not agreeing 
Sometimes we think that showing understanding means that we agree with something somebody says. But what about when we do not agree with the complete rubbish somebody says! Still, showing understanding means that our intention is to listen to how somebody sees a given issue without immediate evaluation. During difficult conversations it is hard to put one’s emotions on hold, not to start presenting your own standpoint, solve somebody’s problems, defend or accuse. If we do manage to have such a conversation, we tend to remember it for a very long time. Active listening with the intent to understand the other side is already giving somebody empathy, and this is one of the most magical of communication tools.

How to show understanding? Lucyna Wieczorek, my friend, the founder of the School of Empathy Trainers and author of a book on empathy “Don’t say ‘I am sorry’, don’t say ‘I love you’”, once shared with me a simple and effective sentence that most people take as a sign of understanding. The sentence is: “That’s awful”.

The next time your mother tells you about her back pain, and you feel like telling her she has only herself to blame because everybody has told her not to dig the garden, try to think how bad that sounds to someone with back pain. Try instead: “That has to be awful”. And then see what happens. I hope the conversation will take a different path.

If you want to show understanding, all QUESTIONS such as “I hear that you are sad about it”, “It must be hard for you now”, “That must be very unpleasant” etc, will also be useful. It is worth giving them a tentative go. Otherwise we might be perceived as wanting to “talk somebody into” feeling something or that we know better.

6. Expressing yourself 
When practicing listening, a question often crops up: “Is there a place to present my point of view?” Yes, by all means! The possibility to express your feelings and needs is as important as listening to the other side. If you feel that you cannot listen to somebody any longer or that something has deeply moved you, say it openly (“You know what, I need a break for a moment, let’s come back to it later”; “What you say is difficult for me, I will try to listen to you to the end, because I want to understand you well”; “I hear your point of view. I see it differently. Do you want to know how it looks from my side?”).

7. Being aware of your own needs 
Be a good listener and at the same time be good for yourself. 

Nobody is perfect. If you get carried away and the conversation doesn’t  go as you wanted, remind yourself that an important need wants a voice. Discovering it will help you come back to the conversation from a completely different place.

You have for sure by now noticed that in emotionally difficult situations we are able to listen actively only for a certain amount of time. Then we need somebody who will give us their attention and listen to us. If there are a lot of difficult conversations ahead of you (e.g. somebody in your family is seriously ill or when misunderstandings show up at work), take care of yourself and find another person who will have time and space for you.

When my father underwent serious surgery, I asked three friends to support me. I arranged with every one of them that I would be able to call and cry and share my fears, and that they would simply listen. I did not want to overwhelm others with continual sad phone calls. This proved to be very helpful – throughout this time I had the sense that I had somebody I could talk to and at the same time I was calm and I did not abuse anybody’s good will.

Exercise: The Magic of Listening 

This is an exercise Lucyna Wieczorek shared with me, giving us a chance to feel the power and magic of listening in a tense situation, in a conflict or criticism:

You hear an accusation or words which hurt you. Give yourself a moment to react consciously, not automatically. Take a couple of deeper breaths. Try to hear what this person means. Repeat in your own words what you heard. At first, it might be difficult and you may feel higher tension, more emotions will show up, and as you go on listening the tension will decrease. Wait until the moment your interlocutor gives you a signal that they feel heard. You will recognise it by the fall in tension, a calmer tone of voice, a deeper breath, relaxation in connecting with the other person. Now there is the moment when you can ask the question: “Would you like to hear how it looks from my side?”

The Art of Listening is a chapter from the Polish book “Ewka what has bitten you? How to communicate and understand each other” by Ewa Tyralik-Kulpa.