It’s your first date. The two of you sip wine in a cute bar downtown. A band plays jazz in the background. You slowly begin to reveal your history. You graduated summa cum laude from college. You speak six languages and can effortlessly switch from one to another in conversation. You’ve played national-level tennis. You cook sumptuous Eritrean food.
You are obviously a catch. But your date is thoroughly bored. You haven’t let them speak. You haven’t even tried to listen.
If you find yourself zoning out when others speak, maybe it’s time for a little introspection.
“Listening is a necessary aspect of communicating so that we can identify with the speaker and enjoy experiences of kinship, empathy, and belonging,” says Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Los Angeles. “Empathetic listening promotes loyalty, protectiveness, alliance, and reliability.”
Distractions of the 21st century—smartphones and social media—can make it tougher to pay attention during conversation. “In a world filled with constant distraction, we miss both outright and subtle communication indications regularly,” says Leah Weiss, Ph.D., a lecturer of management at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “These can be anything from the way that someone looks at us while talking to a slight touch mid-conversation.”
Though most people want to be able to listen, they may have difficulty identifying barriers in the way. “People tend to be egocentric by nature where they are more concerned about their own thoughts/feelings than others’,” says Wyatt Fisher, Psy. D., a licensed psychologist based in Boulder, Colorado. “It can be exacerbated by an upbringing where they were an only child or the center of attention.”
Concern about style or approach can also get in the way of listening well. “We are uncomfortable with long pauses or silences in conversation,” says Weiss. So, to avoid these seemingly awkward moments, we may jump right in with small talk rather than learning to accept (and possibly enjoy) quieter moments.
Biology is also at work. Recent research has shown that the brain’s pleasure centers lit up when we talk, especially about ourselves. These are the same parts of the brain that are turned on by sex and good food. “We like when it’s our turn to speak because it feels good, literally,” says Patti Sabla, a licensed clinical social worker based in Maui, Hawaii.
You can’t get away with poor listening skills forever—people notice these habits. “Listening is so important because it shows respect for the other person,” says Sabla. “There is nothing worse than hearing, ‘So what do you think I should do?’ and realizing you have no idea what their question is about. That’s embarrassing for you and disrespectful to them.”
To really listen, to notice a spark in someone’s eyes as they rave about their latest project, and to observe fluctuations in the pitch of the voice—that’s magical stuff.
Let’s start with the basics. “The next time you have a conversation with someone, focus entirely on what that person is saying … and then think (really think!) before you speak,” says Weiss. “Pause and see what is most important to say and consider why you are saying it. You will be speaking in order to form a connection, not just to hear yourself speak.”
Unplugging from technology is also key if you are committed to improving your listening skills. “Put down your phone and stop multitasking,” warns Weiss. “If you’re having a conversation with someone, simply have a conversation.”
It can be tough to listen when you don’t agree with someone. “Try compassion by attempting to put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a minute,” explains Weiss. “Even if you disagree, try to see things from their perspective.” Ask questions and show respect for opinions different than your own. Try to enjoy the process of communicating and practice understanding another person’s viewpoint.
Good listening skills are invaluable during arguments. Sabla shares a trick: reflect back what the other person has said. “This can be through rephrasing or summarizing,” she explains. Consider this conversation:
Spouse #1: “Ugh, I feel so overwhelmed with all this housework. It seems like I have a million things to do. Does it ever end?”
Spouse #2: “So you’re saying I don’t do anything around here to help?”
Spouse #1: “No, that’s not what I said! I’m not blaming you. I’m just overwhelmed because I got that extra assignment at work, and it’s eating up all my spare time.”
This could have gone in another direction if Spouse #2 had used the reflection trick and dug a little more: “It sounds like you’re pretty stressed. You’ve got a lot on your plate, huh?”
Sabla says this listening technique diffuses conversation and can help shift from argument to discussion. “Active listening and summarizing what the person said can prevent small misunderstandings that otherwise could have led to big blowouts,” she says.
Challenge yourself to wait before responding. “When you think the other person is finished speaking, count to three silently in your mind to see if they keep speaking,” says Fisher. “Most people pause as they are speaking to gather their thoughts, but we don’t realize it because we interrupt with our thoughts.“
So, did you get all that?
Artwork by CHRIS MARKLAND