How to be a better listener

From The Plateau Effect, via Farnham Street:

If you try to improve your listening skills, you’ll notice a lot of discussion about “listening with intent.” Most people listen with intent to do something – usually to defend themselves, or to solve a problem. Nearly everyone listens with the intent of having something ready to say as soon as the speaker is finished. Have you ever wondered how crazy that is? Shouldn’t there be a pause once in a while, as one of the speakers actually thinks about what to say, or even better, thinks about what has been said?

Try something very different: Listening with intent to agree. Before you offer an explanation or defense, just imagine that whatever the other person is saying must be true. It sure is the fastest way to get new ideas into your brain.

(1) Listening with intent to agree is similar to Seth Godin’s approach to unsolicited advice: Try it on.
(2) However, listening with intent to agree doesn’t always work, because sometimes you can’t agree. A better approach might be to listen with intent to understand.
(3) A work around to being a bad listener: Try asking questions in writing, for example using email and Google docs. That way you can read and re-read someone’s answers.
(4) A personal update: In a lecture I heard, Rav Yakov Nagen said that the Jewish mystical work Sefer HaYetzira states that a person has 3 organs for love — a heart and two ears. The statement is surprising because you would have thought that you care for other people by what you say and express to them. Sefer HaYetzira, in contrast, seems to be saying that people have a deep need just to be listened to with empathy, and that listening is an end in itself, not to be followed by speech. The implication for listening more broadly, including in work contexts, is that we shouldn’t listen with intent to do or think anything; just listening is valuable in itself. (This is consistent with listening with intent to understand.) After hearing that, I found my motivation and ability to listen rocketed.

9 thoughts on “How to be a better listener

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