There came a point in my life when I realized that I needed to learn how to become a better listener.
I was raised in a noisy, chatty, opinionated family. It is not terribly surprising that I grew into someone who tends to be noisy, chatty and opinionated.
Probably every single member of my immediate family could have headed a debate team straight to victory.
I still love to have lengthy, in-depth discussions, hashing out different points of view about different topics.
However, somehow, in the midst of all of this opinion-sharing, true listening was not a skill that was ever really modeled in my childhood home. In our house, listening was something that you did so that you could form your own opinion, as a counter-point to what the other had said.
The problem is that when you are only focused on your rebuttal, it is hard to truly hear what the other person is really trying to say.
When no one truly listens to what the other person is saying, discussions tend to turn in frustrating patterns. Everyone is in their corner, defending their own point of view, without a willingness to truly listen to the other person’s perspective. Being able to truly listen to another person means having an openness to possibly admitting that your opinion could be wrong.
That’s a vulnerable position to be in.
The even bigger problem is that many of us continue to be unwilling or unable to put ourselves in that vulnerable position of admitting that we could possibly be wrong.
This means that we can’t open ourselves up to truly listening to another person’s perspective. We can’t risk stepping away from defending our own corner.
Consequently, so many discussions – between parent and child, spouses, friends, siblings, colleagues – often turn in frustrating patterns.
When we don’t truly listen, we get stuck. It becomes completely impossible to step out of these patterns.
The thing is that we can all learn new ways to engage in conversations. We can learn to become a better listener. We can find ways to step out of frustrating communication patterns. Learning to listen more fully can shape new ways of responding to others, which, in turn, can shape how others respond to us.
How Cree culture helped me to become a better listener:
In recent years, I’ve spent an extensive amount of time consulting to the James Bay Cree in Northern Quebec. Contrary to the family that I was raised in, the value of listening is primordial to their Aboriginal culture. Listening is valued much more than sharing an opinion.
These conversational rules were new to me, and it took me some time to learn how to navigate them. To do so successfully, I needed to become a better listener.
The Cree have shaped the way that I listen and connect with others in very profound ways. I observed how their ability to listen so openly led to very deep, meaningful connections. I wanted to learn how to do this. In fact, the longer that I worked with the Cree, the more I realized how much true listening t is rare in conversations.
Little by little, I have tried to incorporate what I have learned in my time with the Cree into my own interactions. This continues to be a work in progress for me. However, if, like myself, you wish to become a better listener so that you can connect more deeply with others, some of the following tips may help get you there. I suggest that you practice one tip at a time, over a period of time, until each skills feels more natural.
1. Be fully present in the conversation.
Many people listen while simultaneously formulating a reply to what is being said, in their head. This pulls us away from really hearing what the other person is expressing.
Challenge: Pick a conversation where you practice being fully present with the other person. Focus only on what they are saying, and let go of any thoughts that pop up into your head as they speak.
2. Accept that the person you are talking to is capable of finding their own solutions and knows what is best for them.
Your role here is to listen and let the other person explore their own solutions, rather than propose your ideas of what they should do in their life.
Challenge: Pick a conversation and decide to not give a single piece of advice. Feels weird, right? Now notice how this impacts how the conversation evolves.
3. Let go of judgment.
When we judge someone, we lose our ability to openly listen to their perspective. We instead listen to them through our lens of how we think they should be, or what we think they should do. This immediately leads to disconnection.
Challenge: Monitor your thoughts for any judgments that might pop up. If you catch any, silently remind yourself, “he/she is doing the best they can right now”.
4. Keep the focus of the conversation on the other person.
In an attempt to relate, we can sometimes shift the focus of the conversation to things that we have experienced in our own life. There are times when this can draw a connection to the person, but there are also times when it can cause immediate disconnection. Whether or not it is appropriate to introduce your own life experience about an event can be quite nuanced.
Challenge: In order to observe how often you shift conversations to be about yourself, and how this impacts the dynamic, try out some conversations where you decide that you will not relate anything back to yourself, unless specifically asked. Notice any differences in how this impacts how you are listening to the other person.
5. Listen more than you speak.
We can sometimes have so many great ideas to share that we can have a tendency to talk more than we listen.
Challenge: Choose a conversation where you practice giving no replies, other than those which show that you are listening (for instance, “oh, really?” or “tell me more”). Notice how unnatural this feels, but also notice how much more we learn about what the other person is sharing when we let them speak freely.
By nature, I am a super chatty, solution-oriented person, so the above skills have been a long work in progress for me. If you are at all like me, it will take time to sustainably shift the way that you interact with others so as to become a better listener. But if you stay connected to the differences in how you connect with others around you, by integrating the above tips, deep listening will gradually become part of your natural communication style.
No matter how good of a listener we are, there is always space to refine our listening skills.
If you are looking to develop the listening skills of the members of your team, so that you can build better relationships across team members, or with clients, get in touch.
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