The Lost Art of Listening

September 18, 2014

Recently my wife and I were flying home on a late night flight after being away for a long weekend, and what I really wanted was to get some sleep on the flight. This proved to be difficult, however, because 2 rows behind me a fellow traveler was snoring…loudly. As I listened to him (at least I think it was a him), I was reminded of how often we hear things we don’t want to hear and miss the things very things we should be hearing.

 

This is true not only on the plane, but in much of life. As a mediator, I am often called upon to help 2 people in conflict reach a mutually acceptable solution. This is challenging at the best of times, but is further complicated by the fact that many times, they have stopped listening to each other. I try to convince them that it really is in their best interests to re-engage and make an honest attempt to truly listen to the other party. I tell them that they are probably not going to agree with what they hear, but at least they will have a better understanding of where the other party is coming from and why they feel the way they do; which greatly increases the chances of reaching a mutually acceptable solution.

 

In his insightful TED talk, “5 Ways to Listen Better,” author and communications guru Julian Treasure  says, “Listening has truly become a lost art; and the world is poorer for it.” He maintains that although, in this digital age communication has increased; both in terms of the amount of information that is passed back and forth and the speed at which it moves; the ability to really listen well is something many of us do poorly. In the talk, he identifies 5 simple practices or habits that we can utilize to help us become better listeners. But, in order for those to be effective we also have to be aware of, and as much as possible, remove the barriers that keep us from listening well.

 

As I sat there listening to my fellow passenger snore away I identified several obstacles that have kept me (and those I am working with as a mediator) from being a good listener. They include, but are not limited to:

 

  • Over-saturation:  The truth is, we live in an incredibly noisy world, and at times the assault on our ear drums keeps us from hearing what we need to hear.  On that same trip we had a 1 hr lay-over in the Phoenix airport.  It was 8 pm on Labor Day, and the airport was packed with travelers returning home from vacations, business types trying to get out for their early morning meetings, and students heading off to school. We were listening (or trying to) for our flight to be called, and all I could hear was a muffled announcement that sounded something like “Now boarding, flight ueytdgbw  to  knehdhgh at gate djebdujefuhmnn”  Actually the announcer reminded me of the Swedish chef from the Muppets. Studies have shown that noise is actually addictive. One of the characteristics of the Millennial generation (those born after 1980) is that they need noise to concentrate. They need some sort of background noise such as music or the television going while they are studying.  Silence and quietness is not only a foreign concept but it is unsettling and uncomfortable.  But obviously it’s easy to miss a significant part of the message when it gets lost in the din of the noise around us.

  • Distraction: Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who is only partially present? It’s frustrating. We are the consummate multi-taskers and many of us live with our smart phones in our hands. We are checking twitter feed, texting our friends and updating our facebook status- while trying to engage in a meaningful or important conversation. In the process we miss a good chunk of what the other person is trying to share with us.  We end up “hearing” what we thought we heard. There are a thousand things that compete for our attention, but Treasure says if we truly want to be a good listener, we must develop the discipline to be fully present in every conversation. 

  • Assumptions: Many times we approach a conversation with a preconceived idea as to how it is going to play out. In other words “we hear what we think we are going to hear.” Our brains have the amazing capacity to recognize certain patterns and then fill in the blanks, based on previous experiences. I see this regularly in my mediation practice. People in conflict tend to make certain assumptions about the other party, based on their previous experiences; and all communication is filtered through that grid. Many times I find myself clarifying or saying “I’m not sure that’s what he/she meant. Here’s what I heard them say.” We heard the same words, but assumptions prevented them from truly listening for the sake of understanding.

  • Disagreement: All too often people in conflict have decided that no matter what the other party says, they are not going to agree with what they hear.  Their mind is like a closed book and they have already determined that that they are right; the other party is wrong, end of story! In this scenario the brain finds that it is much easier to shut off and shut out rather than engaging in the very difficult task of trying to truly understand the position of someone who we are absolutely convinced is wrong. As a mediator, I will often ask one party to share their perspective and tell the other party that their job is to try and summarize what they have just heard.  I say “I am not asking you to agree with it, but try to re-state what you have just heard.” In many cases they find it impossible to do it, because their brain refuses to process information that they are convinced is “wrong”. 

 

Obviously these are just a few of the impediments we encounter when we are trying to understand and to make ourselves understood.  Next month I will take a look at a few of the disciplines or habits that we can intentionally cultivate to improve our listening skills. In the mean time we would do well to listen- truly listen to Treasure’s sage words, “We stand the best chance of being understood when we have made our best effort at trying to understand what another person is saying, and that requires we listen well.”

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