Ever speak with a friend only to come away from the conversation feeling, they didn’t really listen? It’s something that doesn’t just happen face-to-face. Browse through your favourite social media platform and you quickly find yourself looking through endless posts from people sharing information about themselves and their lives. It’s no wonder we sometimes feel the world isn’t listening to us anymore.
In his excellent TED Talk, 5 ways to listen better, Julian Treasure says people withdraw from the world because of its noisiness – both visual and aural: “Many people take refuge in headphones, but they turn big, public spaces, shared soundscapes, into millions of tiny, little personal sound bubbles. In this scenario, nobody’s listening to anybody.”
At BiteSize Learning, we’re interested in the subject because listening is an important ingredient in a successful working relationship. Many of our courses teach listening techniques and, it’s a subtle change, but we’re noticing participants are requiring more assistance in developing those skills.
Why does listening matter?
Good communication – which broadly comprises giving clear instructions and constructive feedback, combined with active listening – ranks highly when it comes to interpersonal relations.
Of LinkedIn’s 2020 list of in-demand interpersonal skills (mined from its 600m+ network of professionals) creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and emotional intelligence – all skills that require good listening abilities.
Stephen Covey’s states in Habit 5 of his seminal successful habits series: “If I were to summarise in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Recently, I decided to spend all my time when out running errands, wearing my headphones so I could binge-listen to my current favourite podcast. These are the big headphones, the ones you normally see in cool parts of town. More ostentatious-looking when you live in suburbia. In fact, they are the aural equivalent of giving two fingers to anyone who dared interact with me, as I was to find out.
Normally I tend to restrict headphone-wearing to when I’m out walking somewhere remote, doing boring chores at home or commuting into town. That’s because I love hearing the world around me – birdsong, the planes above, the whirr of traffic – and my exchanges with other people. It makes me feel connected to the world.
Being cocooned is bad for humankind
But from the cocooned state inside my head this week, I noticed two distinct things. First was how my attention was immediately dominated by the immersive experience. So much so that I failed to buy the item I most needed while out shopping despite having it written down, and then took a wrong turn on my walk home.
The second was my interactions with other people. I noticed a marked difference in the body language of everyone I interacted with: less eye contact, fewer smiles, minimal conversation. Overall, I was paid less attention, a subtle mirroring of the careless attitude I was projecting.
In a new book published last month, You’re Not Listening, New York Times interviewer Kate Murphy has harvested a barrage of statistics and reports to show that our fraying listening skills are not just anecdotally but measurably increasing widespread loneliness and depression.
If communication is the cornerstone of a workplace, then helping employees retrieve this overlooked skill could be a key way to improving employee engagement and company culture.
Learning to listen
We can all learn to be better listeners. Here are some things you can do to improve your listening – like any skill it becomes stronger the more you practice:
- Are you listening or waiting to speak? Learn to WAIT. This is a mnemonic for Why Am I Talking? Challenge yourself as to why you are talking. Do you need to say anything at all?
- On a usual trip where you would wear your headphones – leave them at home – notice the difference in how other people behave towards you.
- We often listen more attentively to people we meet for the first time and tune out from those we know well. So practise really listening to someone you know well and notice what you discover.
- Check out Julian Treasures techniques including the acronym RASA. In Treasure’s TED Talk, he explains how good listeners often use a simple process: they actively listen, appreciate what they’re hearing, summarise what they’ve heard, and then ask questions.
- Recognise your good listening skills. As Kate Murphy says in her book: ‘Give yourself a pat on the back if you ever find yourself pausing and saying in response (honestly): “I don’t know what to say” or: “I’d like to think about that.” Congratulations: you were actually really listening for once’.
Let’s go back to that conversation with a friend. Can you recall your reaction when you were being spoken to? Did you find yourself jumping in, filling the air with questions or quickly doling out advice? Maybe it wasn’t just you who felt you weren’t being listened to. Listening is not a means to an end, a ruse to get yourself heard. Neither is it a passive skill but a very active one, requiring your full focus.
Like most things, the more you practise, the more you’ll understand others and learn more. In turn others will be more likely to listen to you.