Done well and with deliberation, listening can transform your understanding of the people and the world around you, which inevitably enriches and elevates your experience and existence. It is how you develop wisdom and form meaningful relationships.
The ability to listen to anyone has been replaced by the capacity to shut out everyone, particularly those who disagree with us or don’t get to the point fast enough.
The blowhard factor is in part responsible for ongoing political upheaval and divisiveness both in the United States and abroad, as people feel increasingly disconnected from and unheard by those in power.
Polling proved a poor substitute for actually listening to people in their communities and understanding the realities of their everyday lives and the values that drive their decisions. Had political forecasters listened more carefully, critically, and expansively, the election results would have come as little surprise.
Seen as efficient and data driven, looking at what’s trending on social media or conducting online surveys is largely how listening is done in the twenty-first century by the press, politicians, lobbyists, activists, and business interests.
But it’s questionable that social media activity reflects society at large.
Listening is about the experience of being experienced. It’s when someone takes an interest in who you are and what you are doing. The lack of being known and accepted in this way leads to feelings of inadequacy and emptiness. What makes us feel most lonely and isolated in life is less often the result of a devastating traumatic event than the accumulation of occasions when nothing happened but something profitably could have. It’s the missed opportunity to connect when you weren’t listening or someone wasn’t really listening to you.
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned as a journalist is that everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions. If someone is dull or uninteresting, it’s on you.
To listen is to be interested, and the result is more interesting conversations. The goal is to leave the exchange having learned something. You already know about you. You don’t know about the person with whom you are speaking or what you can learn from that person’s experience.
Thinking you already know how a conversation will go down kills curiosity and subverts listening, as does anxiety about the interaction.
In our increasingly disconnected society, people have gotten notably more conspicuous and vocal about their affiliations—particularly their political and ideological affiliations—in an effort to quickly establish loyalties and rapport.
Listening can be particularly challenging for introverts because they have so much busyness going on in their own heads that it’s hard to make room for additional input. Because they tend to be sensitive, they may also reach saturation sooner. Listening can feel like an onslaught, making it difficult to continue listening, particularly when the speech-thought differential gives their minds occasion to drift.
Good listeners have negative capability. They are able to cope with contradictory ideas and gray areas. Good listeners know there is usually more to the story than first appears and are not so eager for tidy reasoning and immediate answers, which is perhaps the opposite to being narrow-minded. Negative capability is also at the root of creativity because it leads to new ways of thinking about things.
In the psychological literature, negative capability is known as cognitive complexity, which research shows is positively related to self-compassion and negatively related to dogmatism. Because they are able to listen without anxiety and are open to hearing all sides, people who are more cognitively complex are better able to store, retrieve, organize, and generate information, which gives them greater facility for making associations and coming up with new ideas. It also enables them to make better judgments and sounder decisions.
To listen does not mean, or even imply, that you agree with someone. It simply means you accept the legitimacy of the other person’s point of view and that you might have something to learn from it. It also means that you embrace the possibility that there might be multiple truths and understanding them all might lead to a larger truth. Good listeners know understanding is not binary.
Inner dialogue fosters and supports cognitive complexity, that valuable ability to tolerate a range of views, make associations, and come up with new ideas.
how you talk to yourself affects how you hear other people. For example, someone who has a critical inner voice will hear someone else’s words very differently than someone whose inner voice tends to blame others. It’s all your fault versus It’s all their fault. In other words, our inner dialogue influences and distorts what other people say and thus how we behave in relationships.
Research suggests that after people listen regularly to faster-paced speech, they have great difficulty maintaining their attention when addressed by someone who is talking normally—sort of like the feeling you get when you come off an expressway and have to go through a school zone. Moreover, you lose your ability to perceive and appreciate nuance in conversation because things like tonal shifts, subtle sighs, foreign accents, and even voices made raspy by whiskey and cigarettes all but disappear when heard in double time.
A study by psychologists at the University of Essex found that the mere presence of a phone on the table—even if it’s silent—makes those sitting around the table feel more disconnected and disinclined to talk about anything important or meaningful, knowing if they do, they will probably be interrupted. It’s a weird loop of the phone creating a circumstance where people will talk about things that aren’t worth listening to, which in turn makes you more likely to stop listening and look at your phone.
Not listening because you don’t agree with someone, you are self-absorbed, or you think you already know what someone will say makes you a bad listener. But not listening because you don’t have the intellectual or emotional energy to listen at that moment makes you human. At that point, it’s probably best to exit the conversation and circle back later.
Listening can continue even when you are no longer in the presence of the speaker as you reflect on what the person said and gain added insight. This is not to recommend obsessive rumination or picking apart conversations, which psychiatrist Zerbe said usually has more to do with insecurity than honest reflection. You know you’re doing this when you are spinning your wheels going over and over how you feel about something someone said instead of considering the feelings that drove the other person to say it.
- Douglas Stuart
Mungo had been working hard at seeing what people really meant. Mo-Maw and his sister, Jodie, were always nagging him about that. Apparently there could be some distance between what a person was saying and what you should be seeing. Jodie said he was gullible. Mo-Maw said she wished she had raised him to be cannier, less of anybody's fool. It was a funny thing to be a disappointment because you were honest and assumed others might be too. The games people played made his head hurt.
Mungo couldn't cross the distance between them. The best he could do was to lay his hand next to James's so that their little fingers were almost touching. They were close enough that it was as if they were touching. The heat from James's hand jumped the distance between them and flooded Mungo's entire body. He lay there, upside down and a world away, and listened to James choke up. He wanted to offer more comfort. The courage wouldn't come.
It was James that changed it. The pinkie that had lain next to his own crossed over and locked over his. The electrical current that had burned at the border jumped on to his skin and he was scorched.
Without questioning it, Mungo sat up in the bed and oriented himself to lie beside James. He pulled the boy on to his chest and felt the crumpled wetness of his face. He held him, just like Jodie would hold him, and let him remember his mother. It was good to put your weight on someone else, even if it was just for a short while.
James was biting his split lip. The rushing traffic blew his tawny hair over his eyes, the wheat and the barley, the sticky pulled sugar of it caught and ate the last of the sinking sun.
The broken hand swivelled then. He turned his bandaged knuckles towards Mungo and the splinted fingers that had caressed the soft down at the bottom of his spine twitched faintly, discreetly. The swaddling made the gesture crude, inarticulate, but Mungo understood.