The quote above is what Stephen Covey describes as ‘the most important principle’ that he learned about human interactions. It’s habit number 5 in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and he explains that listening to people fully and thinking about the feelings behind the words leads to a much better level of communication.
To illustrate how powerful really listening to someone is, psychologist Tara Brach says that our life spirit is like a fountain. If we haven’t been listened to properly for a long time, the fountain gets clogged with unprocessed hurts and feelings, and our true self and aliveness can’t flow. When the fountain is clogged, we are more likely to complain, judge, be angry or just talk about nothing that’s real. But when somebody starts to listen to us, the debris starts to come away, and we start to flow and talk from a more authentic place.
However, listening fully isn’t easy, and often we only half listen; perhaps we are stressed, distracted, or feel like we don’t have time. Covey says that many people ‘listen with the intent to reply’ – half listening while preparing what they are going to say next. This means that not only does the person speaking not feel fully heard, but also the person listening misses some of what is being said. Tara Brach adds that one of the big reasons we don’t listen fully is that we often feel uncomfortable if we don’t have something to say, almost as if we feel like we are not here, or we don’t exist if we’re not speaking or planning a response. Because of this, we often rush to comment or give advice.
However, listening is a skill, and like any other skill it can be developed, and in a 2016 TED talk, Celeste Headlee gave some tips about how to do this, about how to be a better listener. Her first tip is to be fully present in the moment when listening, not thinking about something else; thoughts and good things to say will come into your mind, but you need to let them go. And when asking questions, she suggests using open-ended questions (wh. questions) rather than closed questions (yes/no questions). Another tip she gives is ‘don’t equate your experience to theirs’. This means that, for example, if someone tells you about a problem at work, don’t immediately respond with a comment about how much you dislike your job; it’s never the same, she says.
Psychologist Kenneth Miller suggests taking a breath before you respond, as a way to be a better listener. He had noticed that with his clients he had often responded too quickly, and believes that many of us do this as we tend to be uncomfortable with moments of silence in conversations. But he found that if he takes a breath before responding, the little bit of silence gives the person talking time to think about what they are saying, and then they often continue talking. He also notices that in everyday life he interrupts people less, and most of the people he listens to seem more relaxed as, without the worry about interruptions, they don’t need to rush what they’re saying. He recommends trying the technique to have better conversations, but warns that some people do get uncomfortable with the silence.
What about really difficult conversations? What can you do if you have a serious conflict or you’re just not understanding each other? Psychology professor Jordan Peterson suggests using one of Carl Roger’s techniques for more challenging conversations: both people follow the rule: ‘Each person can speak only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately.’ Summarising what the other person has said ensures that he or she feels understood, and will then be more open and more able to listen to your ideas, Peterson says.
Listening is important, and when you listen fully it can be incredibly powerful and helpful for the person talking. But, in addition to that, Peterson says that if you really listen to people, the person speaking is likely to be honest and generally tell you everything they are thinking, and very few of your conversations will be boring.
IELTS Reading Questions for Listening:
Matching Information & Summary Completion.
Sources and links
– 7 Habits for Highly Effective People website.
– Tara Brach’s talk about listening.
– TED talk by Celeste Headlee about listening techniques and ways to have better conversations.
– Psychology Today article by Kenneth Miller about ‘taking a breath’ listening technique.
– Jordan Peterson’s website. He talks about the listening technique in his book 12 Rules for Life.
– Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay