Do people actually listen?

Published on Jan 20, 2022
By Terry / Senior System Design Engineer

Well, do they? I mean, most will nod at the right moments and hear you, but do they really listen, feel you, understand you? Do they even bother these days? Or have we become so caught up in our own reality that we start to forget there is more in the world than just ourselves? More than just yourself, that there are others too?

A striking example for me is the American elections of 2020: where two distinct different camps expressed their points of view, but – as far I understood the silver lining in the news – unable to put themselves into the shoes of the other. To be able understand their point of view and have a fruitful discussion about it. The emotions around it, the fear, anger, and lack of trust were so plain I stopped watching the news as it was quite depressing to me.

By listening to another I always thought that if you pay attention and listen, the message would get across and you would understand each other. But lately I start to feel a big part is missing in this; if the other does not trust you (enough), he will not speak all things on his mind. This will leave you with the impression you got the message, but it was not the message that was intended in the first place. To be able to listen with the intent to understand, to get emotionally on the same plane builds trust and allows people to connect. They will open up more and this time more readily speak what is on their mind as they feel understood.

If there is one thing I would like to improve upon, it would be summarized in 1 word: empathy. The ability to truly understand the person you are communicating with. It is more than just listening and hearing the message, it is feelings and emotions as well. Believing this is a skill that can be learned and accepting that “it is not about you” are major factors in the ability to grow in this area. While we spend so much time on improving our speaking and presenting skills, I believe empathy will actually improve conversations much more. Something I am learning along the way: the more you practice, the better you will get. And to add another: it is a lot easier if you are emotionally stable when having such a conversation. To be able to truly understand the other’s view does not mean you have to agree with it.

Improving this skill will require you to get to know yourself a bit more: what are your strengths, but more importantly: what are your weaknesses? What are the things that will add fuel to the fire and get your emotions up? If you are a sports fanatic, how will your emotions be when your conversation partner starts about a lost match? If you are sure a problem needs this specific fix, how open will you be to another view? How will this come across? To know yourself is to know when this might happen and get a reign on these emotions in order to focus on emphatic listening. Being able to do just that, just listen – it will give the other some emotional breathing room. It will lighten their step and for sure they will remember the conversation. Wouldn’t it be a nice thing to give?

An article of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health names listening as an important part of transformational leadership, where a leader will not only focus on the task, but also on the person doing the task. This made me wonder as I have seen this in literature before. In the 7 Habits from Stephen R. Covey an entire chapter is dedicated to this: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood“. Or in a work from Simon Sinek: “Leaders Eat Last“, where a large part is dedicated in putting people before numbers in an organization and what benefits this will yield. In the book “Connect: building exceptional relationships with family, friends and colleaguesthe human aspect, the empathy (amongst other things) is expressed and used to improve the quality of life one has – both for yourself and for your conversation partner.

It allows people to feel understood, appreciated, valued again. Or as Stephen R. Covey once put it: “The deepest need for the human heart is to feel understood”. Something I believe we are starting to overlook more and more in our current day and age. You hear other people speak, but do you really listen? Is it like: “How was work honey? – Fine” or do you really take the time, sit down for a moment and truly want to know how work actually went that day? In a video: “It is not about the nail“.

How did you feel about the advice the guy gave in the video? So often we fall into this trap and almost unknowingly we give it – from our point of view. Most of the time people can solve their own issues. They do not ask for advice, they ask to listen. In a quote from Simon Sinek: “There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak”.

To be able to truly listen it takes a different mindset, a slower pace even. When you take time and get past the part that “it is not about you” – you can start communicating with more than just a few words on the surface and reach into the part that has emotions too. Most often there is a deeper layer that expresses how we feel, more clearly than the words we speak. To be able to slow down, to intently tune in to the other and try to see things from their perspective gives a lot of opportunities to learn. It certainly has a profound impact on the other, for yourself it allows you to get better insight into the intent of the other. It allows you to learn and adapt your own intent, to add value to the ‘we’ in the conversation. Not all conversations need to be ‘deep’ in this manner, by using empathy correctly you will know which ones can benefit most from it.

“Listen, or your tongue will make you deaf.” – Native American proverb

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