Listening takes more effort than we might think. Here's how to do it well
Unsplash: Kevin Curtis
When I contacted people whose job it is to listen — psychotherapists, counsellors, journalists — one thing came up repeatedly.
It was a quote from the late author Stephen Covey: "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply."
Think about when you listen to somebody. Be honest: are you thinking about you and how you'll formulate the wittiest, most intelligent or most logical reply? Or are you actually hearing what the other person is trying to say? These are two different things.
If you fall into the former category, fear not! Take solace in the fact many of us are more focused on how we'll come across ourselves. But also know that you can transform yourself into an effective, excellent listener.
It's a skill that'll be invaluable in the small talk season of the Christmas party.
Listening vs hearing
The difference between listening and hearing is simple. It's analysis. And that often requires a pause, says Brisbane counsellor Natajsa Wagner:
"Many don't practise effective listening — they're always seeking to respond before they've really heard or processed. You need to let it percolate — giving the speaker a safe space to speak."
It can be tempting to think of listening as a passive task, when the opposite is true, she says: "Good listening is active; it requires effort."
That effort to pause is crucial to the work of psychotherapists like Tahnee Schulz, chief operating officer of online mental health platform Lysn:
"When we sit with someone in their distress or comfort, by not replying instantly, we show them it's OK and we can cope with them and their whole self; we process together."
This type of active listening creates resilience, Schulz says.
"It increases stress tolerance. Instead of quickly trying to solve the problem, it allows that person space to fully reflect and own the solution themselves. That's far more powerful than someone telling you what to do."
Learning to be a better listener requires two steps — first, discovering what type of listener you are. Once you know that, you can adapt your listening style.
To interrupt or not to interrupt
There are different ways to listen: passively; actively; empathetically; anxiously; gesticulating; mirroring; patiently; impatiently; interrupting.
Although all the experts I interviewed agreed that active listening trumps passive, there was division over the interrupting listener.
Oscar Trimboli, author of The Art and Science of Listening, characterises the interrupting listener as impatient:
"You're so focused on finding a solution to the problem that you finish the speaker's sentences for them. You feel they're moving too slowly in describing ... so you listen with the intent of solving problems the speaker hasn't yet verbalised. It causes confusion."
But The Book of Life takes a different view of the "interrupter", likening her or him to a conversation "editor" — the interrupting listener creates clarity, not confusion, much like an editor does:
"A good editor doesn't merely accept a manuscript as it is first presented. They set about interrogating, cutting, expanding and focusing the text — not in the name of changing the fundamentals of what the author is saying, but rather of bringing out a range of underlying intentions which have been threatened by digressions, hesitations, losses of confidence and lapses of attention. The editor doesn't change the author into someone else: they help them to become who they really are."
Rather than wanting to divert the conversation to their own ends, the interrupter can actually bring the speaker closer to their intention:
"A good editorially minded listener ... will ask the speaker to unpack their feelings more intensely and elaborate upon emotions with a sense that these will prove hugely interesting rather than boring or alarming to the audience. They help the speaker to close down stray subplots, and nudge them back to the central story, which has been lost in details."
Which type are you?
For Schulz, there are four main types of listener:
• Time orientated — concerned with efficiency. Facts are pertinent. They require people to be clear and straight to the point.
• Action orientated — strictly focused on the task. What'll be done, and by whom. They're problem solvers; they keep an agenda in a meeting.
• Content orientated — evaluates very carefully for preferred and credible sources. Listens for different perspectives/angles.
• People orientated — focuses on feelings. Listens for nuances that improve the relationship. Responds well to humour. Adapts listening for how that particular person will want to feel heard.
Highly skilled listeners can jump in and out, depending on the context.
But there's one type of listener to really watch out for, according to Melanie Tait, a freelance journalist and former ABC radio broadcaster — and that's the non-listener:
"My group of friends use the 'three questions rule'. In a new social conversation, if you ask three questions and they don't ask you one back, get out! That person doesn't have manners and won't be a good conversationalist."
Top tips from the experts
Removing your own agenda will allow you to connect more deeply, says psychotherapist Schulz.
"That way, you can pick up micro-clues about what's really going on", she says.
Counsellor Natajsa Wagner says mirroring is a simple yet effective listening tool: "It's simply paraphrasing what you heard the other person say and repeating it back to them," she says.
Tait, who spent 12 years as a "professional listener" on ABC radio, champions simple inquisitiveness:
"The key to being a good listener is being curious about people. If you go into every conversation believing that the person you're chatting with has something interesting to say — some unique perspective you haven't opened your mind to before — then you'll be more keen to listen to them."
Tait's colleague, the late Mark Colvin, who hosted ABC's PM show, offered some surprising advice:
"He once said he only ever wrote three questions for an interview because that forced him to listen for the rest of the conversation."
Being present in the moment is similarly important for counsellors, Wagner says.
"When in front of you, that person should feel like they're the only person in the world. Only then will they feel they have your full attention."
Now, you have the tools to survive your Christmas party: talk small, but listen big.