How to Improve Our Listening (Episode 11-39)
When we truly listen, we not only learn about others, but also about ourselves
The Chinese character for listening, its different elements, and their meaning.
Do you remember the last time you really felt heard? That’s such a good and wholesome feeling, right? Even if you’d be speaking about something terrifying, or difficult, the experience of being heard will have made you feel safe and will have calmed you down. The fact that you were really heard, also helped you to hear yourself, most likely. ‘A listener’s empathy—grasping what we’re trying to say and showing it—builds a bond of understanding, linking us to someone who hears us and cares, and thus confirms that our feelings are legitimate and recognizable’ (Nichols, 2009). The listener, with its conscious listening, provides us with a dearly sought-after validation which we all seek. Through this, we can not only be understood better, but also expand the understanding of ourselves. ‘Few motives in human experience are as powerful as the yearning to be understood’ (Nichols, 2009). ‘Listening has the power to heal divisions’ (McHugh, 2015). Listening, and being listened to, has the power to heal ourselves, and possibly broken bonds. Listening then ‘can bridge the divide between people in conflict, transform stalemates into learning opportunities and unearth solutions from seemingly intractable situations’ (McHugh, 2015). Michael Nichols states it well, ‘[i]f listening strengthens our relationships by cementing our connection with one another, it also fortifies our sense of self. In the presence of a receptive listener, we are able to clarify what we think and discover what we feel’ (Nichols, 2009).
Do you also remember the last time you didn’t feel heard? When you were trying to express yourself, but the other person wasn’t hearing you? Their focus was somewhere else. This probably left you feeling alone, frustrated. Angry perhaps. ‘People get lonely for lack of listening. Psychology and sociology researchers have begun warning of an epidemic of loneliness’ (Murphy, 2020). Even in the presence of many people, and with so much (digital and virtual) ‘connection’, we can still feel extremely lonely when we don’t feel heard. We then lack social validation. ‘The negative health impact [of not being heard] is worse than smoking fourteen cigarettes per day. Indeed, epidemiological studies have found links between loneliness and heart disease, stroke, dementia, and poor immune function’ (Murphy, 2020). Therefore, we need to learn to listen again. Because when we learn to listen to others, this invites others to listen to us, and bonds are established and reinforced.
In his book, ‘The Lost Art of Listening’, Michael Nichols writes about the hurt which is caused by not being heard, or not feeling heard. The following example stood out for me, as I know I too am guilty of doing this at times: ‘I called a friend and left a message asking if we could meet at a particular time. He didn’t answer, and I felt a little anxious and confused. Should I call again to remind him? After all, I know he’s busy. Should I wait another day or two and hope he’ll answer? Should I not have asked him in the first place? All this leaves me uneasy’ (Nichols, 2009). Even a little thing like an unanswered message can possibly leave someone troubled and hurt. If an oversight like that can hurt someone, what then happens when we’re not hearing someone right in front of us, speaking about something important to them? In any case, I believe we, including myself, can improve our abilities to listen. I’ll try to share some of the things I’ve learnt on this topic below.
The gift of listening
Our goal should be to ‘be more interested than interesting’ (Goulston, 2009). I really like this statement. It’s not about us. I get plenty of time with myself. By all means, let me learn more about you, from you. Let me listen to you! The older I get, the more I realize about the importance of listening. I learn what a gift this actually is, when we can give someone our presence, full attention and focus, and through that, allow the other person to be heard and seen. In those cases, we just listen. We don’t share our solutions. Opinions. Frustrations. We’re just there, for the other person. Allowing them to be heard and to hear themselves. I know that I often shape my words while talking. In the process of expressing myself, words take shape, and my conceptions come to life. I’m sure this is true for other people too. Therefore, I know from personal experience how beneficial it can be when someone can just speak and find their words. Being able to listen then, is an immensely valuable trait to have and to develop. Not only for ourselves, but for others equally. ‘As soon as [we’re] able to say what’s on [our] mind—and be heard and acknowledged—[we] are unburdened’ (Nichols, 2009). Considering this, listening then, truly is a gift.
Just listen, and ‘simply’ be there
What we often do when listening, is giving advice, a solution to their problem(s), or sharing our own personal story that (we think) is like theirs. We shouldn’t! No two experiences are the same, and certainly not for different people. We should instead focus on listening with presence and curiosity to hear about their experience. When we are relaxed, present, and grounded with the other person, they experience this from us. It can help them be more present too, and support them to better express themselves. We can help someone relax and get rid of tension and stress by listening to them (Jansen, 2021). For this, we need to consciously be with our speaker, with presence, in the here and now. In those instances, ‘conscious listening always creates understanding’ (Treasure, 2011). ‘A good listener is a witness, not a judge of your experience’ (Nichols, 2009). As Corine Jansen shared with me during our talk on listening, ‘the most important element of listening is to give [the other] the comfort and trust to share stories’ (Jansen, 2021). ‘One can be an active participant in a conversation even while remaining silent’ (Ferrari, 2012). Sometimes just to simply ‘be there’ is enough.
Let the silence do its work
‘The first thing to do when you feel the urge to interrupt is to—keep quiet!’ (Ferrari, 2012). From personal experience I know that it sometimes takes a while for me to find the right words. Sometimes words just flow out, like a river. Other times, my words have to emerge, as coming from a deep well. I know other people experience this too. Many people I know need time, to articulate themselves. Because of this, it is important that we allow for silence. Not speaking, not asking, but just allowing for silence to do its work. This at times can be uncomfortable. But it serves us, and the person we’re listening to, greatly. Therefore, I invite you to try to cultivate more silence when listening. Allowing more time for words, concepts, and ideas to emerge and surface. As Bernard Ferrari states for this purpose, ‘as a practical matter, when I consciously pause in a conversation, I like to count five beats in my head’ (Ferrari, 2012). ‘There are still some people left out there who think and speak in paragraphs, and might have more to say [after a moment of silence]. So if a conversation partner is done speaking and seems to be inviting me to respond, I consciously pause and wait to see if he or she will keep talking’ (Ferrari, 2012). Bernard Ferrari also has a useful list of questions he asks himself before interrupting someone (Ferrari, 2012). Find them here:
Do I need any clarification?
Do I want to hear more about this issue, or one that has come before?
Do I need to parse an issue to focus on a certain aspect?
Do I want to head down a different line of discussion?
Is there a counterargument or new perspective I want to pose that might cause my conversation partner to reexamine his point of view?
Do I need to end the conversation?
Ferrari suggests that ‘only if you can answer yes to any one of these questions, then, and only then, you should feel comfortable enough jumping into the conversation and putting in your two cents’ (Ferrari, 2012).
‘Most of the time, there’s something between the words spoken, but sometimes there is not’ (Jansen, 2021). We therefore need to be careful with assuming there is. When we notice there might be something between the words spoken, we can carefully ask about this. ‘Is there something more?’, and then stay silent. That silence is critically important. We need to be silent until we’re even beyond the uncomfortable part of the silence. That’s where the magic happens. That’s where new doors open. Also, when we notice someone struggling with expressing themselves, just shut up and stay silent. Allow the words to surface and be found. We all process emotions and things in their own way and in their our own time. Therefore, sometimes we might notice something being there between the words. But then don’t push the speaker, as they might not yet be ready to share it in that moment (Jansen, 2021). However, sometimes, when we ask; ‘is there something more?’, and the other answers ‘no’, and we then remain silent, sometimes that’s when something emerges and comes up. ‘Listening is not being silent, but you need to be silent sometimes for listening’ (Jansen, 2021).
What it means to listen
As a listener, our intention and attention need to be with the other person. We need to make the [conscious] choice to listen (Jansen, 2021). Listening is hard work. As is so often said and quoted, we only have one mouth, yet two ears. This implies we need to speak much less then we listen. Also, although my ideas might take form when talking, it’s when I listen that I can learn new things and arrive at new perspectives. The guideline of Bernard Ferrari is useful in this regard. As he states, ‘my conversation partner should be speaking 80 percent of the time, while I speak only 20 percent of the time. Further, I seek to maximize my 20 percent. I can make my speaking time count by spending as much of it as possible posing questions, rather than holding forth with my opinions and observations’ (Ferrari, 2012). ‘The 20 percent of your time spent talking should mostly be filled with questions seeking to steer the conversation into more productive terrain’ (Ferrari, 2012). Therefore, listening doesn’t mean we’re always quiet. We can have an active role to supporting the speaker in finding his/her words. However, it’s not like tennis. ‘Don’t think of conversation as a back-and-forth game of one-upmanship. Instead, let the other person dominate the dialogue’ (Goulston, 2009). ‘Listening has not one but two purposes: taking in information and bearing witness to another’s experience. By momentarily stepping out of his or her own frame of reference and into ours, the person who really listens acknowledges and affirms us. That validation is essential for sustaining the confirmation known as self-respect. Without being listened to, we are shut up in the solitude of our own hearts’ (Nichols, 2009).
Listening with someone, instead of to someone
When we listen, we can focus on the meaning of the words, their chronologic order, or lack thereof, or we can truly dive into the experience with that other person. We can become part of their narrative. As Corine explained in our talk about listening, you can listen to another person, but also with another person. When we listen with someone, instead of tosomeone, we become part of their journey, through their own narrative. This means we need to dare to be vulnerable and be courageous to join in the experience with the other, instead of merely listening to them. The more self-reflection we have, the more critical attention with that other person we cultivate, and the more curiosity about them and the world we can muster, the less judgment we will experience and the less assumptions we will have, articulated Corine Jansen.
When we’re able to do this, it will be a joining of the experience through our listening, instead of a mere witnessing. For instance, people with dementia, or post-traumatic stress disorders, don’t share their narrative in a linear way. In those cases, it can be chaotic when they speak. Then, when we listen with them, we can share this process together, making them feel heard and seen. According to Corine, this is the highest level of listening. When we can for instance be confused together with that other person, and just be there together, where we don’t judge. Narrative listening is about joining the other person in their experience. This form of listening, according to Corine Jansen, refers to the stratification of the stories that make up a human being (Jansen, 2021). The more we are able to listen like this, the more we will connect and the more someone will feel heard and seen.
We listen in different ways
Different people hear in different ways, and habitually listen to and for different types of information (Jansen, 2021). As research has shown, we all listen in very different modes. We also have a range of unique combinations of filters, such as culture, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, and intentions. These filters ultimately determine what we pay attention to, and how we listen. ‘Most people are entirely unconscious of these filters’ (Treasure, 2011). However, these filters create our reality but also shape how we listen. Therefore it is possible, that when paraphrasing, we can do this uniquely different from what was just shared with us. Often, this could lead to misunderstandings and the feeling that we’re not being listened to (Jansen, 2021). However, because we all listen for different things, it will help us to realize that although someone might sometimes give us the impression they might not have listened because of their way of paraphrasing, this doesn’t mean this was also the case. Maybe indeed their focus was very different from ours. When we can be open to this, it can expand our awareness and lead us to new perspectives and insights.
Articulating our emotions when communicating
When we get hurt, we often fall in the trap of making the other person responsible for hurting us, for being rude, or disrespectful. What we often forget in these situations, is that this is not the other person’s doing, but our own experience that makes us feel this way. When we’re very present and awake, we can realize that it’s not the other person who is hurting us, but it’s ourselves, attributing meaning to what the other person did and how that made us feel. In those cases, Corine recommends talking about the ‘I’, instead of the other person when feeling hurt. Then, to articulate ‘I hear you saying that, but this hurts me, and I feel hurt right now’ (Jansen, 2021). In this way, we can stay with the other person, while at the same time expressing what the effect is on us of his/her communication in that present moment. We can’t say for a fact what the other’s intentions are with their words or actions. How we interpret things, however, remains our responsibility. When we’re listening to someone, or speaking for that matter, and we realize we’re hurt by what is said, or done, we need to thus share that experience. Share that we’re feeling hurt. Not that they’ve hurt us, but that we’re currently experiencing hurt in that moment. My talk with Michael Kolb about Honesty very much aligns with this notion to express in the present, and from moment to moment, what we are experiencing. Then, instead of this hurt taking us on a lead, away from ourselves and our communication partner, we can instead get over it and move on. From there, we can stay present with the other person, instead of creating distance because of our hurt. I invite you to go back to that post, as it offers many insights on this process.
Listening to ourselves while listening to others
To better listen to other people, we also need to listen to ourselves (Ury, 2015). We are our own instrument. Therefore, the better we know ourselves, the better listeners we can become (Jansen, 2021). It’s therefore highly beneficial to take a few moments of silence before a difficult conversation or an important meeting. Take a few moments of quiet time. Just to listen to yourself. Notice what you’re experiencing, let it go, or move through it, and you’ll be better able to be present in the here and now, and indeed listen. Corine refers to this process as ‘clearing your listening’ (Jansen, 2021). Clearing your listening means to take a few minutes, or seconds if you don’t have a lot of time, to experience how you’re feeling in that moment. Ask yourself for instance, ‘what are my thoughts [about] the person I’m about to meet, do I like him/her, or do I already have assumptions about this person?’ (Jansen, 2021). We need to be aware that our morals and assumptions in many cases will not be the same as those of the other person we encounter. Knowing ourselves, our assumptions and morals, is therefore very important in our listening (Jansen, 2021).
Listening to yourself is being aware of yourself, being aware of any pain and hurt you might be experiencing, your possible tiredness in that moment and basically who you are as a human being in the present moment, and how this state of being can affect your encounter and communication with that other person. Accepting who you are in this moment is a big part of this. As Corine recommends, in line with the practice of Radical Honesty, it might be very beneficial to share how you feel with the other person you are engaging with (Jansen, 2021). This can make you a better listener, as it will free more focus to direct towards your listening. When as a listener, we notice any emotions coming up, or we notice ourselves being triggered by something that is said, we need to stay aware that it doesn’t become about us. Instead, we need to stay present with that other person as a listener (Jansen, 2021). If that experience becomes too demanding or distracting for us, where we cannot fully focus on that other person anymore, we need to express this to the other person and (possibly) have a break, to reset ourselves.
Practice, and practice more
‘I think I can listen quite well, but if you don’t feel heard, I didn’t do a good job’ (Jansen, 2021). I love how Corine said this. We can think we’re good listeners, but in the end, it’s not up to us. It’s up to the other side to determine whether they feel heard, or not. ‘Good listening burns more calories than talking ever will’ (Ferrari, 2012). Listening is hard. I know. It’s hard work. Because of this, we need to practice. Time and time again. We need to choose. Chose, over and over, to put our focus and attention, our presence and our being, with that other person. By doing so we can improve our ability to listen. Listening requires practice. As Corine Jansen rightfully said, ‘listening is a muscle we can train, because it’s a cognitive process’ (Jansen, 2021). Therefore, I’ll close with the invitation for you to practice your listening. I hope this writeup will offer some support with that. Also, please don’t forget to spend some time reflecting on the Chinese character at the top of this post, as your practice of listening should involve all its elements; hearing, thinking, seeing, feeling, and your presence and focus.
Since the beginning of this project, I’ve wanted to research the topic of listening. Improving our ability to listen better has many clear benefits. Developing this quality will improve our relationships, increase our learnings and expand our perspectives.
To learn how to improve our listening, I’ve talked to Corine Jansen, an expert at listening. She works as a speaker, trainer, and assessor, in the field of listening, all focused on helping people listen better. Her focus is not only to listen to people, but to listen with them.
She’s taught about the importance of listening in healthcare at the Radboud University of Nijmegen, is the co-founder of the Narrative Healthcare Network and co-founder of ‘Netherlands Listens’, a platform which aims to instill curiosity and openness instead of polarization, and invites us to listen more. Nine years ago, Corine also founded her own practice JoConnect, focusing on listening, opening conversations, and becoming more human, together.
My talk with Corine was great, I loved her examples and to listen to her speak on the topic. Enjoy!
Website of Corine Jansen: https://corinejansen.com
Carpenter, Alissa, 2020, How to Listen and Be Heard. https://amzn.to/2Zd5fEM
Ferrari, Bernard, 2012, Power Listening. https://amzn.to/2XJ6z1G
Goulston, Mark, 2009, Just Listen. https://amzn.to/3zuOFwv
Leonardo, Nixaly, 2020, Active Listening Techniques. https://amzn.to/3lRW2JG
McHugh, Adam, 2015, The Listening Life. https://amzn.to/3u0yWEx
Murphy, Kate, 2020, You’re Not Listening. https://amzn.to/2ZrfrtH
Nichols, Michael, 2009, The lost art of listening. https://amzn.to/39u2pxa
Treasure, Julian, 2011, 5 ways to listen better. https://youtu.be/cSohjlYQI2A
Ury, William, 2015, The power of listening. https://youtu.be/saXfavo1OQo, accessed on 19 September, 2021.