Listening is an underrated skill that many of us find surprisingly hard to maintain. Becoming a great listener takes patience, energy and willpower. But, to do so will be time very well spent. Here’s why.
How often do any of us really listen when someone else is speaking? Without judgement, without thinking about our own response, without worrying about something else or planning what we’re going to have for our lunch? Judging by the frenetic pace of modern life and the fact that 3.3 million people in the UK experience chronic loneliness, it’s probably not as often as it should be.
Listening is good for us. It helps us to stay in the moment, connect with other people and better understand the world around us. So why do we find it so hard?
For those of us who can hear it, the world is a noisy place. Turning our attention away from it for long enough to listen with conviction and curiosity can be difficult. Our brains are increasingly being re-wired for distraction; constantly seeking that hit of dopamine we get from the instant gratification we have become accustomed to. It’s easier to ‘like’ someone’s social media post or fire off an instant message than it is to take the time to stop, sit and listen with interest. Which, of course, is a bit sad but also uncomfortably true.
Even the time we do take to cultivate our relationships in the ‘real world’ is in danger of being disrupted by our need to stay connected to anything other than the moment we are living in. Our hands twitching over our phones in almost every ‘unplugged’ moment is arguably one of our biggest barriers to being better listeners. This phenomenon has a name, ‘phubbing’. Literal translation: phone snubbing - choosing a phone over a real person, sometimes mid conversation.
We’re all guilty of phubbing from time to time and we’ve almost certainly all been phubbed. Social psychologists have found that phubbing has a negative impact on self-esteem, belongingness and meaningful existence. It has also been linked to increased feelings of anxiety and depression. We are mistaking being connected for feeling connection and it’s an easy mistake to make.
Our digital world provides us with unending access to information we agree with and people we want to engage with (along with many people we don’t). Chatting away to like minded people on multiple media channels gives us a sense of immense sociability that is intoxicating. But herein lies the problem: when we are plugged into multiple channels of communication we are training our brains to shy away from depth and nuance.
We are teaching ourselves to favour quick confirmation of our own beliefs rather than delving into subjects that we find challenging. We disallow opinions that are different to our own because we cannot see the benefits of engaging with them. Plus, with all that constant stimulation, we simply don’t have the time. We are frazzled and frazzled people don’t make for good listeners.
Short of throwing our devices into a ditch and running away to live in a forest, how can we tune back into our relationships in a more meaningful way? The answer is surprisingly simple: learn how to listen.
We have fallen so deeply into our self-made echo chambers that we have forgotten what listening is and it’s leaving us all with a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction that is palpable in our increasingly poor mental health stats. The simplest way to start to swim away from the communication shallows is to appreciate the art of a great question.
In almost any situation, a great question will allow a conversation to flow deeper than it would have otherwise. A great question will always allow for elaboration and will almost never encourage a binary response. Great questions are open: how did that happen? What do you think about that? What makes you think that? Great questions create a pivotal conversational moment that will improve its quality, create depth and add meaning to a relationship. Yes, it can really be that simple.
Questions can also help dissolve conflicts. When someone offers a divisive opinion, allowing them to elaborate by asking them about their belief, will help foster understanding and warmth - even if their opinion is still disagreeable to us. The proliferation of so-called echo chambers online epitomises our collective lack of curiosity and the sense of helplessness this gives us. Figuratively putting our fingers in our ears will not make unpopular or unpleasant opinions disappear and, in many cases, only serves to fuel further dissent.
We need to start seeing the world - and the people in it - as something to be understood rather than controlled or curtailed. This takes patience, time and willing participation. Learning to let go of - or at least willingly suspend - both our own opinions and our desire to be ‘right’, will help us to listen with more integrity. At first this will require effort; effort to seek out longer conversations with people we haven’t always listened to and effort to remain curious and questioning even when our views are challenged.
The result of taking time to actively tune in to, rather than cancel out, the opinions of others will pave our way to a more peaceful existence. Listening is just the beginning; understanding, accepting and challenging - armed with knowledge rather than just raw emotion - is the gold standard of communication and relationship building. One we should all be striving for.
There is no way around it, in order to be better listeners we need to practice. We need to take back time that we have given away to the externalisation of our own opinions to hear what other people have to say. We need to get comfortable taking a temporary back seat.
The good news is that we all have plenty of opportunities to practice listening. Whether it's with our partners, parents, children or work colleagues, holding back and giving them space to talk will always be welcome. The benefits for the person being listened to is pretty clear - everyone wants to be understood after all. When we feel heard we feel happier, supported and more confident. And the benefits go both ways - listening can be surprisingly gratifying.
Honing the skill with practice is one of the most important ways to develop because we learn more, gain psychological flexibility (which can help us through all the change life throws at us) and earns us the respect of the people we take time to listen to. When it comes to work, great listening gives us an extra dimension that our colleagues, managers and direct reports will value. Listening gives us information that will help us to make better decisions; decisions that can never be referred to as ‘tone deaf’. If nothing else, this surely is what will demonstrably set the great listeners apart from the rest.
At Voco we know how powerful listening can be. Being able to share our experiences with a willing listener and offering our own time in reciprocation is both refreshing and rewarding.