If you ask someone what makes a “bad listener,” they usually describe people distractedly looking at their phones or changing the topic mid-conversation. However, ask them what makes a good listener, and they might find the request a bit more challenging.
At least, that’s what Kate Murphy, author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, found in her research. According to Kate, most people have a tougher time describing the qualities of a solid ear. “I think that just tells us that people have more experience with bad listeners than with good listeners,” she says.
So what makes a good listener? On Calm’s new series The Spark, Kate shares her insight on how to have meaningful and productive conversations:
Reframe your role in communicating
We all know the importance of an elevator pitch and being able to “sell yourself” to a room. Prioritizing talking over listening isn’t necessarily our fault––we've been taught that since youth.
If you think about schools and colleges these days, you can take courses on elocution and debate. “There's no comparable course or extracurricular activity for listening. We're not taught how to do it.”
In order to make your conversations more valuable and less transactional (and less like you’re “waiting” for your turn), reframe your role. Ask yourself: What can I gather by paying attention? By listening, you’re learning and when you’re learning, you’re absorbing precious information.
You're not really going to gain when you're talking. “People fool themselves into thinking that ‘I'm really gonna move this person by my wonderful, glowing, and pointed argument.’ But actually, the other person's probably thinking about what they're going to say next. When you are listening is really when you are the person that's in the more powerful position.”
Channel your inner child
We could learn a thing or two from toddlers. Little kids are incredibly curious and they listen really well. “In fact, you'll notice that they'll repeat things back to you ... they're really always listening and asking you questions, trying to figure you out.”
As we grow older, we naturally develop our own biases and it can become easier to lose that innate curiosity. Instead, we tend to make assumptions; you might think, “I know what you’re going to say” or we feel like we already know particular people we’re close to. However, if we stop ourselves from jumping to assumptions, we’ll be surprised and less likely to want to tune out.
“If there's one thing I've learned as a journalist, it's that everyone has a story,” says Kate. “If somebody seems boring or not worth your time, it's really on you. When I get to the end of an interview and I feel like I didn't get that insight––that it sort of seemed stale or I didn't get any good information––I really see it as a failure on my part.”
Of course, some people may be withholding, but the takeaway is that if you’re open, non-judgemental, and willing to ask curious questions, you’ll likely be more engaged. “By virtue of asking the question, you’re invested in the answer,” explains Kate. “So really, you’re motivating yourself to listen.”
Doing a good job of listening to others means slowing down and listening to yourself first.
“We all have vulnerabilities and assumptions that we make,” says Kate. “You really need to know your own personal sensitivities.”
Kate uses the analogy of adjusting the mirrors in a car so you eliminate blind spots. An example of this would be somebody telling you, “you’re very original.” If you sometimes feel out of step with the world, you may interpret this to mean that you’re an “oddball” or “weird.”
However, the person could have meant––and probably did mean––that you’re refreshingly unique.
If you know that it’s a common tendency of yours to misinterpret, you can be a better listener by recognizing that “maybe I didn’t quite get that,” explains Kate. This further opens the door for you to ask questions such as, “tell me more about what you meant about that.”
Take note of the small things
Finally, a key part of listening is noticing, which means paying attention. Take stock of people’s body language and the way they look at you. This is helpful for assessing how open they are, gauging how deep you can go, and what kinds of questions you can ask.
But even on a surface level, noticing the details can unlock a new avenue.
“If somebody is wearing an interesting piece of jewelry, that piece of jewelry has a story behind it,” notes Kate. Sometimes, it’s the little things right in front of you that are the conversation-starters––and they can be helpful when you’re feeling stuck or unengaged.
Ultimately, everyone has noticeable “little threads,” and if you can find a way to talk about them, you can start a beautiful quilt.