Effective Communication: Listening

Nader Alexan
Dec 18, 2018 · 13 min read

INTRO — BEGINNING

— TLDR skip —

Two months ago, I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues, he complained about having a hard time in communicating with another colleague at work. Such a common annoying issue, I thought to myself.

Thinking back at my earlier years, I always had issues with communication, I recall always feeling frustrated in my adolescence due to my inability to communicate what I am thinking/feeling, then I got introduced to books on social psychology and effective communication became a rather simple skill to acquire.


— TLDR skip —

Listening has been the most useful tool for effective communication, in the following few minutes, I will explain some pillars of listening that when followed, will change the level on which you are able to connect with others and build rapport.

This, however, is not a comprehensive guide, for instance, it barely scratches the surface of the psychological concepts behind the pillars and does not cover all pillars of listening.

— TLDR read —

That being said, read the whole article at once (10–12 minutes) then use the below points as a handbook you refer to on regular basis.

PILLARS OF LISTENING — BODY LANGUAGE

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Head tilt

Photo by Kev Costello

Every time I make eye contact with a dog and she tilts her head slightly to the right side, I fall in love.

Dogs tend to own our asses with this little show of attentiveness, and there is a good reason for that, we crave genuine attention, that even when man’s-best-friend who does not understand most of what we are saying gives us the feeling of uninterrupted attention, our heart melts.

It is a show of high interest and light submissiveness meant to communicate to the speaker, the ground is yours my friend, I am interested in what you have to say.

— Reverse

A head tilted too much indicates uncertainty, tilted and backward, indicates suspiciousness, tilted and forward, just looks stupid…

— TLDR read —

Eye contact

Photo by oldskool photography

Look at your phone while someone is talking to you, even for a second, and you are basically saying “Oh look, shiny new notification, that’s more interesting than what you have to say”.

Make uninterrupted eye contact with your speaker while she explains a topic she deems complicated, or one where she feels generally misunderstood, and you will create a type of rapport that usually takes months to build.

— Reverse

Where your speaker lies on the spectrum of extra-/introversion, your relationship to them, and their level of comfort around you, all have a direct effect on the frequency and length of uninterrupted eye contact you can make without seeming too eager, too interested, or simply creepy.

— TLDR skip-if not LIKES_STORIES) —

Tom came into the meeting room, the conversation was to revolve around rather normal work topics, I turned my body towards him, put my phone on silent and out of sight, made eye contact, and started attentively listening.

I couldn’t help but notice that Tom was uncomfortable, he turned his body away, didn’t make eye contact, and his voice had a barely audible tremble to it. Fuck, I am making him uncomfortable, but why?

I barely knew Tom, we had talked maybe once before, in a very informal context, with a lot of beer. Now, we are having a work related conversation and he seemed uneasy with it.
I took a step back and tried to focus purely on his body language to try and understand what is going on. Quickly, I realised, he was an introvert and I am a stranger putting too much pressure on him by being overtly attentive suggesting that I am expecting him to talk to a stranger, me.

I switch my body language such that we are both facing a window, look down as he talks, and make infrequent eye contact, only as reactions to his, and not every single time he looks at me. Minutes later, I can visibly see his comfort level rises, the tremble in his voice fades, his shoulder blades relax moving his shoulders down. I am happy.

Understand, if you take any technique at face-value, do not apply understanding of the principle behind it and the context to the equation, you will inevitably fail at effectively communicating.

— TLDR read —

Mirroring

Photo by BESCHTE Photography

Have you ever met someone and in the first few minutes of talking you kept on finding similarities between the two of you? How did that make you feel? I guess pretty good.

Well, subconsciously, we enjoy the same thing on the body language level. Research done on mirror neurones (a type of neurotransmitters in the brain that fire up when we do an action or see someone do that action) show that people are more comfortable around others who mimic their body language

— Reverse

Overtly mimic other’s body language, and you will creep the shit out of them.


PILLARS OF LISTENING — HELPING OTHERS UNDERSTAND THEMSELVES

— TLDR read —

Photo by Carson Arias

“I got pissed off” she said with a slightly emotional reaction, “it was inevitable that I shout at him” she continues….“Is it what he said, the way he said it?” I asked curiously, “No, I just got pissed off, that’s it”

PAUSE

Most people do not understand themselves, their reactions, or why they do what they do, they give explanations to themselves, if I donate money to charity while I am not doing so well financially, it is because I am a good person, while other times, when I do not, although I am doing well financially, it is because I am just having too many financial responsibilities and need to feel financially secure. If I get pissed off at my girlfriend, it is because she did something that annoyed me, not because I have been having a bad day at work. If she gets pissed off at me, it is because she is a moody angry person and I should not accept this from her.

Oh well…

Back to our story, let’s take it from where we left off

“Go on”, I say with a genuine interest in my tone of voice. “I don’t know, I just have been getting pissed off a lot lately”, “Hmm, why do you think that is?”, “Well, for the past two weeks I have not been progressing very well at work, I am very demotivated” “What’s demotivating you?” “I am not sure, well, I think it has to do with the new boss at work, for some reason I am just not getting along with her at all”,
*I maintain eye contact and await my speaker to continue talking*

You see where this is going? Well, humans are just not good at understanding themselves, so some very simple outside guidance, where you push people to look into their feelings, actions, and reactions, can go a long way, and well, makes you an amazing listener, speakers will come out of a conversation with you feeling more at ease with themselves, better understanding their emotions, and generally in a better mood. All you did? Well, you simply understood their need to be heard, and helped guide their thoughts.

— TLDR read —

Why does that bother you?

Photo by Mark Zamora on Unsplash

As you can tell from the aforementioned story, a simple guidance of people’s conversation goes along way, so let’s talk specifics now. Well, the guidance requires either a request for continuation such as “Go on”, “I am listening”, “Continue”, etc. or vague questions meant to allow for no right answer but rather a self analysis of emotions, states, and actions such as “Why did that bother you?”, “What’s making you feel this way?”, and the all-time cliché “And how does that make you feel?”. Start integrating these small sentences in everyday conversations and watch as you help your speakers get in touch with themselves (insert dirty joke here) and love you for it.

— Reverse

Constantly using continuation sentences (e.g. “Go on”) without having a speaker that needs motivation to continue talking can be annoying, and accordingly have the opposite effect. Your focus, should never be about using a technique, but rather about understanding the principle behind it and accordingly making an informed decision on whether or not that specific technique is applicable in that case.

Py: “I have been feeling quite down lately, you kn..”

Charm: *interruptingly* “Go on!”

Py: “Huh? Ah, you know ever since that new manager joined our company, I have not been enjoying my job as much…”

Charm: “Yes, I am listening, continue”

Py: “Yes, I am trying to, just let me speak”

Charm: “Oh, I didn’t mean to. Go on!”

Facepalm

Photo by Jack Hamilton

PILLARS OF LISTENING — HUMAN 101

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Overtly criticise others, not.

Dale Carnegie’s famous “How to win friends and influence people” starts the first chapter with a story about “Two Gun” Crowley — the killer, explaining that when the famous killer was getting sent to the chair, his final words were “This is what I get for defending myself.”. Dale goes on to tell other stories of historical people that were regarded as quite bad people such as Al’ Capone and Dutch Shultz saying sentences that shows that they did not regard themselves as bad.

This is not very surprising, consider when you say “Oh, I am always failing at following my food regimen” and then someone responds with “Yea, you cannot seem to stick to one since five years now”, although the response might be true, we feel like shit and frequently get defensive when someone indicates our faults with disapproval in their tone.

Be very wary of criticising others, it could be the end of your connection with someone, or worse yet, it could build up resentment that comes up later in the form of passive aggressiveness.

Understand, when your speaker mentions their faults, they need re-assurance that they are, at heart, good people, not confirmation of their faults.

— TLDR skip-if not LIKES_STORIES) —

— Scenario 1

Phil: “I think I was hard on Chris last night.”

Collins: “Yes, you were, you always do that when you are stressed”

Phil continues to think, blames himself, feels bad, then realises “ what the fuck, Collins is always getting angry at his girlfriend and acting weird, who is he to judge me”

Phil builds up resentment towards Collins

— Scenario 2

Phil: “I think I was hard on Chris last night.”

Collins: “Hmm, go on”

Phil: “Well, it has been a very stressful week at work, and I think I took it out on Chris”

Collins: “That must be bothering you, you like Chris a-lot”

Phil: “Well, yes, I think I was an asshole, man”

Collins: “You’re not an asshole, you were just having a stressful week”

Phil: “Well, yea, it is just still not an excuse to be bad to someone”

Collins: “No, it is not. And the fact that it bothers you, suggests that you are, at core, a good person”

*slight pause in the conversation*

Collins: “So what will you do to remedy the situation with Chris”

Phil: “I am gonna go apologise to her”

Collins: “That’s a good idea, how will you make sure not to fall into the same trap in the future”

You get where this is going.

After you have re-assured your speaker’s self-image, you can in-fact disagree with them, making it very clear that your disagreement is not with the person but with the topic itself.

— Reverse

Overtly do this with a righteous person, and you get the opposite results.

— TLDR read —

Summarise and repeat

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell

Have you ever heard about how people like hearing their own names? Well, they love hearing their own ideas, it makes them feel validated, and more importantly, heard, a most-seductive feeling.

When your speaker explains a topic they are passionate about to you, listen in awe, then, every few minutes, summarise what they said and repeat it to them.

Marshall: “……My new phone is the bomb, it has bluetooth, super bluetooth, double WiFi, and even regular WiFi”

Mathers: “Wait, it has both double WiFi, AND normal WiFi?”

Marshall: “YES”

Mathers: “Dude, that is cool!”

Life hack, want someone adore to you? After your speaker tells a joke, laugh, repeat the punch line, and laugh again. Sit back and watch the happiness you bring to your speaker.

— TLDR read —

Emotional Translation

Photo by Ben Blennerhassett

Fine!
Yea, right!
Thanks.

Take words at face value, and you will lose the meaning behind them.

We tend to be quite smart in understanding that when a boyfriend says “No, I am not jealous of that guy you were talking to all night”, that he is, in-fact, jealous. But when it comes to our partner shouting “You never listen to what I say” we seem to completely miss the point that they are not really bothered that we do not listen to them, nor is it that they are angry at us, but rather that they are crying out for attention.

Taking words at face value and assuming that people are able to properly translate their emotions, in the rather limited medium that is language, is costing us endless misunderstandings.

Comes, emotional translation.

When listening to your speaker, do not purely focus on words, but rather, add emotions (how has this person been feeling lately), background (someone coming from a very loud family, will tend to speak loudly that it might seem like they are shouting at you), read between the lines, ask questions that help them better understand how they feel, and eventually lead you to figuring out what they are truly trying to communicate.
They will call you, “someone who just gets them”

— TLDR read —

Build comfort

Photo by Arnold Leung

While some people seem to be walking around looking for someone they can tell their whole life story to, most people, are a bit more private than that.
If you are having a conversation with someone, listening attentively to their words, emotionally translating them into what they actually mean, but feel they are having a hard time opening up to you or being comfortable around you, well, it is simply a fear of showing vulnerability. One simple solution is to share a vulnerability from your side, this will immediately make your speaker more at ease.
The more genuine the vulnerability, the more your speaker will feel comfortable.

— Reverse

Share information too personal and you run the risk of making the other person feel creeped out.

— Conclusion

Do keep in mind, some people might just feel that sharing certain information with you makes them vulnerable, in such cases, you should never try to get that information out of them.

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Interrupt your speaker regularly — clarify yourself

Photo by Jason Rosewell

Easiest way to make your speaker feel that their words are of no value to you, is by interrupting them often. We tend to think that our interruptions, specially when they include a sort of self-clarification, are important for the conversation…most likely, they are not. It is just our desire to air our opinions, and self-gratify. Indulge in this at your own risk.

— TLDR read —

Reply immediately without thinking

Photo by Alex Knight

Selective listening is described by Stephen Covey in his famous book “The 7 habits of highly effective people” as listening to specific parts of a conversation and replying to just these.

— TLDR skip —

Kater: “I failed math, that sucks, I studied a lot, but the exam was really hard, and I was partying all of Saturday so was quite destroyed on Sunday, then I got a flu and was in bed the whole week”

Blau: “See, I told you partying on Saturday was a bad idea, you failed math because of that!”

How many times have you felt that the other person stopped listening after hearing a specific sentence and was just waiting for you to finish talking so they can respond to that specific sentence?
Annoying, isn’t it? Well, we actually do it quite frequently.

— TLDR read —

Since our goal here is to become attentive listeners not just ok listeners, it would be wise not just to avoid selective listening, but to do the opposite, after listening to your speaker, pause, fight every attempt you have at responding, and examine what you just heard, what you want to say, and what your speaker expects/desires of you, as an attentive listener. Then, respond.

Doing such a simple activity will make your speaker feel that you value their words, which if you are an attentive listener, you do.

Life hack, if you feel someone is lying to you, listen to their lie, do not respond, but maintain eye-contact as if you are expecting them to continue talking, which would make them think you are on to them.

— do not abuse life hacks. be good.


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Conclusion

You can easily learn how to be a good listener, and it will make people around you feel understood by you and accordingly become more receptive to your thoughts, ideas, and opinions, however, understand, if you fake this, purely for the purposes of getting your way, and not for the genuine desire to effectively communicating with others around you, you will eventually be discovered as a fake, and will forever lose the trust of those you manipulated.

I leave you with one thought, genuinely develop an interest in others, and it will better your life

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” -Dr. Karl Augustus Menninger

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— if you enjoyed this and would like to read more psychology related concepts explained in plain English, leave some claps.

3YOURMIND Team

This is the blog of the folks from 3YOURMIND. These are the amazing personalities contributing to the growth and transformation of our company. Get familiar with the stories that define our culture and the way this innovative company works. WARNING: If you read, you join.

Nader Alexan

Written by

Software Engineer passionate about Psychology, understanding fellow Homo sapiens, and dogs

3YOURMIND Team

This is the blog of the folks from 3YOURMIND. These are the amazing personalities contributing to the growth and transformation of our company. Get familiar with the stories that define our culture and the way this innovative company works. WARNING: If you read, you join.

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