Not the Pen or the Sword but the Ear

Listen up … it could be worth your while.

The information overload of today means we need quicker attention. Lightening assimilation. Speedy cognitive access, to cope. The ancient skill of proper listening is eroding by the day, not helped by the seismic shift towards popular image- and meme-based communication. This is despite it being among the most important tools we have. It’s something we often take for granted.

Proper conversations are the result of a million years. Focused, relaxed listeners make for encounters where both sides walk out feeling richer. Bigger and energised.

Listening should be easy enough. But we know from research (and perhaps arguments at home) that we’re often poor listeners. In fact, one study suggests an average of 60% of audiences at any time are not listening to you the speaker. They rely on ‘bounce-back’ to follow you. In other words, they use their audio short-term memory – their recall of recent sound – to fill the daydream gaps. Unless the gaps exceed twelve seconds or so, in which case they miss a bit. And they do.

If we want more inspired thinking, creative solutions, insights and global wisdom, we need to break old habits of disengaged listening. Here are some quick and easy ways to shift your listening habits to broaden your potential.

Put the other person first. Stop listening out for what you want to gain from the conversation. Resist trying to prepare what you want to say next. Instead, what do they need to say? If you sense what is important to them, the conversation becomes real. Give their agenda oxygen by letting them share their thoughts. Avoid cutting them off, unless they’re just paraphrasing needlessly. Hold back until they complete their turn so you can see the value they place on the details. Give them the gift of being able to truly express themselves.

Think about the situation you’re both in. Yes, there are specific details and facts on offer. But what about the whole person and their context. Your context together. People regularly enter into conversations focusing on specifics, piecing together hard details or evidence to shape your understanding. However, why not bring the person who is talking to the foreground. Frame the specifics with a deeper and broader context of that person: what they are trying to achieve or simply how they feel about it.

So often the devil is in the details. How someone is presenting the particulars is often way more informative that what. Take time to pacify your need for verification and fact-checking. Take a look at their body language. How do they engage with the topic? You may find yourself as skilled as a forensics team and more subtle than a police interrogation. Just look.

Part of context is also what people do not say. Sometimes words left unspoken are more important than those making it into the conversation. So consider subtext. It is an important part of listening. What can you discern they want to say but cannot bring themselves to? What are they circumnavigating? Paying attention to the clues someone is dropping is important. It can give insight into their feelings, their cultural background, their interpersonal relations. Sometimes it might be something deemed as taboo or uncomfortable to talk about.

We all have the instinct to pigeon-hole. Labels are part of how our cognition deals with complexity. It is rooted in a useful primal instinct to survive. The ability to assess our environment by drawing speedy conclusions has helped us flourish. So it is not a crime in itself.

But it is if we let the labels become fixed dogmas. In the classics, they call it ‘topos’ when an ‘old wife’s tale’ or popular gossip becomes so prevalent that it gets seen as fact. Rumour reiterated enough eventually will become law or ‘truth’. This old Greek wisdom is revealed through a common mishap of the gutter press today. Politicians like Trump and Johnson use it regularly to misleadingly alter voter sentiment.

When what we sense does not fit with our pigeonholes, we have two choices: to challenge the pigeonhole or to judge. Being judgmental is not particularly nice. It feels a bit sociopathic in an enlightened modern city. When listening, it is useful to convert any judgement into curiosity. Ask yourself why. In listening, it does help to approach a conversation with an open mind.

Having fewer judgements, in fact, buys you time to empathise and learn and not just expend energy in confirming your preconceptions. Being curious means you let your counterpart show more of themselves. You get to guide the conversation by expressing a true interest. The deeper you listen and understand different perspectives, the more likely you are to empower yourself in being able to see the bigger picture and inspire others. We only truly grow when we converse with people we disagree with.

In coaching, we call this active listening. It is listening to relinquish taking the wheel, for a time, often. It’s something we practise but it is also something we recommend and teach. Try it! Conversations with unhurried active listeners are more nutritious: they provide food for thought for days to come.

Tony Corballis


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