The Art of Listening - A Psychiatrist in Training Shares Her "Secrets"
I once had a patient in my office, an elderly, widowed lady, who pretty quickly turned out to be one of those clients who “just needed to talk,” needing not medical but human attention. She was venting with such intensity; I barely had the chance to say anything so I just let her “go with it, keeping eye contact, nodding, affirming her with my presence; at the end of the session, she looked visibly relieved, was able to cheer up and concluded: “Doctor, I haven’t had such a nice conversation in a long time.”
Yes, people these days are willing to pay someone to just listen to them, and for many, this is the only way to get quality attention. We live in a superficial world where our attention is distracted every second. The abundance of stimulation and irrelevant information (that we get exposed to, even unintentionally) make our brain “over-saturated,” making it more difficult to clear it out for new information. Just think about how frequently you get notifications on your phone. According to Internet trend reports, we unlock our phones an average of 150 times a day — the days when we were able to immerse in a deep conversation and create real presence with someone seem long gone. We delude ourselves into the idea of being able to multitask. However, neuroscience shows that we would just keep switching our attention really fast in between tasks, preventing us from doing any of them well. Our brain deals with the abundance of information in three pivotal ways: deleting, distorting and generalizing. Anything you do not prioritize will more likely be victim of one of these processes.
Listening means being truly present: Just as in the example above with the elderly lady, listening can be the most important element of conversing. The truth is, lack of good listening compromises our relationships — be it family, kids, friends or business partners. When we are consumed in our own world, we give and get less from others. Generosity means giving your time. Time becomes quality time if you also give your attention. Spending quality time together will yield quality relationships that are important parts of becoming truly successful in any field.
Follow these 10 simple steps to become a better listener:
1. Body language. Only 7 percent of communication takes place on the verbal level; the rest is unspoken. Unfolding your arms and legs, turning toward the other person and maintaining eye contact show respect; this open body language makes the other party trust you. Mastering face-to-face conversation can be a great asset in developing friendship and professional circles. You will come across as honest and reliable, and people will be happy to share information with you.
2. Develop genuine curiosity. Simply decide to sympathize and open up your mind to the other person. Assuming that there will be something worth listening to increases your ability to retrieve critical information. A fun exercise to train your curiosity? The next time when you have to interact with someone you don’t like, challenge yourself to find one likable thing about that person. You are in for a surprise. Intention is powerful — don’t let old habits and opinions restrict you, and you will keep growing.
3. Don’t assume you know what you’re going to hear, because you don’t. While listening, it is almost impossible not to develop assumptions. Our brain works in ways of trying to predict what it is going to hear, categorize it right away and associate it to prior existing knowledge (generalization, remember?). This happens automatically with the purpose of processing the information as fast as possible. However, you can make a conscious effort to silence your thoughts and just listen. Let your associations keep bubbling up without expressing them right away — you might come up with something more insightful later. Think: We have two ears but one mouth to be able to listen twice as much as we speak.
4. Avoid interrupting unless for a reason: Verbally cutting someone off can be either good or bad. Not letting the other person get to the point will create a tense atmosphere, Even if it is not palpable, the other individual will feel frustrated and maybe even angry after talking to you (a potential problem if you have any purpose with the conversation). On the other hand, expressions such as “are you serious?” are interruptions, but they are encouraging and mean that you fully understand what another person is talking about. Use them carefully.
5. Withstand discussing uncomfortable subjects. You will come across as responsible and accountable; the relationship will deepen and be more meaningful.
6. Seek clarification. Make sure you get it right. Asking to clarify will not only prove that you are following the exchange but will also make the other person trust and share more. Asking relevant questions keeps the conversation going.
7. Summarize. This ensures that you got it right. Summarize the information by using expressions such as “so you are saying that ....” This will reassure both parties that you are talking about the same thing and are on the same page. This might be especially important in case you are not 100 percent positive that you got the other’s perspective, for instance in the presence of a language barrier.
8. Affirm. Affirmation is another aspect of communication that happens a lot on nonverbal levels (think smiling, nodding and making small verbal comments). Disclosing more about how the information is affecting you by making statements such as “Oh, I am sorry you had to deal with those difficulties … that must have been really hard” or “I can relate to that” shows that the information hit a human being at the other end and will make the other person bond with you and remember you more.
9. Set aside “worry-time”: If there is something (anything) you have to urgently deal with that would prevent you from being able to fully pay attention to anything or anyone else in the moment, set aside 10 minutes to think that through. At the end of the 10 minutes, wherever you are with it, you have got to drop it. You can schedule another 10 minutes in perhaps a few hours, when you can resume where you left off. Knowing that you have dedicated time to the topic will make you feel more relaxed and able to deal with other things. In the meantime, if thoughts related to the topic pop up, you have to suppress them. You can train your brain and will quickly become good at this.
10. Follow up as appropriate to the relationship and the content to show that you truly care. Forget about your phone. Don’t prioritize phone calls or texts over actual conversations you are having. Not only is it rude to glance at your phone when someone else is talking to you, it prevents you from being able to listen and makes the other person shut down and share less. A good way to avoid constant distractions and multitasking is to turn off as many types of notifications on your phone as possible. The vast majority of those can wait, and you can structure your day by setting aside time to check emails and texts. This way, you will also be more able to give quality time to your emails instead of being half-present with everything you are dealing with.
An important caveat
Be the guardian of your mind though. As much as it is a great skill to listen well, it is important to choose consciously where, when and to whom you give your full attention. Filter the information you let in — avoid giving attention to toxic people or situations. We hear a lot about the importance of healthy eating habits but rarely become aware of how important it is to ‘feed’ our minds well. Even when we don’t realize it, negative information does hurt us.
A great asset to develop these days is the ability to intentionally direct and focus your attention, instead of being in a superficially operating, constantly distracted mode all day, doing everything half-baked. Full attention is rare these days — start practicing and you will see that it is gold. People sense it and will automatically share more; they will remember and trust you, and they will reach out to you the next time. You will be more productive and will feel more accomplished in many aspects of your life.