We all know that listening is a really good thing to do and that we should do more of it, especially with people we care about. But there are so many things that can get in the way of doing this well. If you’re distracted, impatient, or want to be somewhere else, you won’t have access to the bandwidth necessary to really listen. Likewise, if you are reacting to what you hear, or what you think you will hear, you won’t be very open to what the other person is really trying to say.
Be present and attentive
Listening is more than just closing your mouth. True listening is a multi-layered and complex skill. It is essentially a decision to be present and attentive to another person. It also takes courage to listen at times, especially if the other person is saying some things you find uncomfortable. This can be a tremendous act of kindness.
Suspend your agenda
When you really listen to another person, you’re actively saying to that person: “I value you and what you have to say, and will give you my attention, time, and energy while you speak.” This also means suspending your own agenda and focusing a lot more on what the other person is saying and a lot less on what you plan to say next.
You don’t have to abandon your agenda, just set it aside long enough to take in what is going on for the other person. It will still be waiting for you to pick it up again when the time is right.
Manage your reactions
If the other person says things that you don’t want to hear, you will probably feel some discomfort. This can easily lead to defensiveness or the desire to fire back if you feel threatened. Your reactions can show up in a variety of ways. For example, physically you might notice a more rapid heart beat, heat rise up the back of your neck, shivering, or a churning in your stomach. Emotionally you might feel threatened, fearful, defiant, or angry. Your thoughts may turn to strategies for defending yourself or for how to get the upper hand with the person who is triggering your discomfort.
All of these responses can interfere with, and make it difficult if not impossible, to really listen. Any time you feel like you’re warding off an attack, your ability to listen will start to drop. If you do find yourself in a guarded or defensive state, it’s helpful to just notice that. Take a deep breath and release any unnecessary tension. Then, like setting your agenda aside for a few moments, acknowledge your reactions and set them to the side temporarily, so you can come back and listen to what the person is saying.
Try warm, friendly curiosity
Once you set your reactions aside, it’s easier to try out more expansive choices. One of these choices is to become more curious about what the other person is actually saying. Allow yourself to wonder about why they would say what they say and feel the way they do. If you do this in a way that is also friendly and sincere, it will open more doors than you can imagine.
This even works with someone who is angry. When you listen with warm, curiosity to someone who is really upset with you, their anger will very often start to melt when they feel “heard” and valued. Most people really appreciate this! As a result, they will very often drop their guarded positions and this in turn can make it easier for you to drop your own defended position.
Warm, friendly, curiosity is a great ally. It invites the other person to connect and make contact. It can also be an enjoyable state that supports many different kinds of learning. This is a powerful base for productive work of any kind.
Have you tried warm, curious listening? Have you done this with someone who was upset with you? Did it lead to any surprises?