How good a listener are you really?

‘Silence’ by dr_zoidberg*

At Toastmasters we value speaking a lot, and for most people it’s probably the number one reason to join. But along with it, we value listening, which is the second half of the communication equation. After all, what good is speaking if no one is listening?

There are various levels of listening. Are you listening at all? Are you listening to react, or for an opening? Or are you listening to actually understand?

How good a listener are you really?

I’d like to share with you an experience I had two years ago, and which has changed me profoundly. It happened on a Saturday afternoon, when I took a friend of mine to the World Press Photo exhibition at the WA Museum in Northbridge. If you have seen World Press Photo exhibitions yourself, you will know that the photos can be quite “in your face”. World Press Photo does not censor the photos that are used in the exhibition. They convey a story that is seldom seen in the mainstream media, unfiltered and raw. It is an honest peek into both the good and the bad humanity has to offer. In fairness, it’s mostly about the bad.

While we were walking around the museum, taking in what was shown, I noticed my friend seemed a bit, well, off. I asked if she was okay. Her answer was something along the lines of “I don’t know.” I decided to not push on, but keep an eye on her, to make sure she was doing alright. She wasn’t ill or anything, but it seemed the photos were having quite an impact on her.

After the visit to the museum, we went for a coffee at the Pica bar, also in Northbridge. I asked what she thought of the exhibition. She started answering my question, then went completely silent. And something extraordinary happened to me.

I did not speak. She looked away, not at other people, but into another world, one that existed only in her head. She was sitting across from me, but her mind was elsewhere. It seemed clear she wasn’t done answering my question and was busy thinking, so I did not speak. Every now and then she would continue to speak, only to go silent again shortly after.

This went on for quite a while, until her demeanour changed. She sighed, looked at me and smiled, and her posture changed considerably. She looked utterly relaxed, relieved maybe. It was clear she was done answering my question. It was a remarkable experience for me and her, one that I had never had before. To me, it ranks as the most respectful interaction between two people I have ever had.

It took me a couple of months to find out what had happened, but then I stumbled upon a book by Nancy Kline called ‘Time to think — Listening to ignite the human mind’. In it, the author describes how listening, really listening, can ‘make things happen’ (so to speak) in the mind of the person you’re listening to. “Really listening”, in Kline’s world, means shutting the hell up.

By staying quiet, while keeping your full attention with your conversation partner, you free her mind. According to Kline, you create a so-called Thinking Environment. You allow for associations to occur that wouldn’t happen if you’d interrupt her. You give complete and utter freedom to explore everything that’s going on in her mind, finding answers she may not have been aware of. And all you have to do is stay quiet and attentive. And this is what happened to me on that Saturday afternoon: by staying quiet and attentive, by being the best listener I could be, I had created a Thinking Environment.

Nancy Kline — AZ Quotes †

How good a listener are you really? Well, here’s what you need to know to become an awesome listener.

First, don’t interrupt your speaking partner. Let her speak. Even when she goes quiet, don’t say a word. Even when the quietness starts to feel uncomfortable, and it will, don’t speak! Only if someone asks why you don’t say anything — it happens sometimes because most people aren’t used to this — you can tell them that you’re listening to what they have to say. After that, shut up. You don’t have to elaborate on it, nor explain it. Simply tell them you’re listening, and go back to it. Keep this up, until you’re absolutely sure she’s done.

Secondly, find your listening face. Everyone has it, a facial expression, a stance or a posture that indicates you’re listening, truly listening. Find yours! Practise it, and apply it when you need to listen. Hold it as long as you have to and don’t get distracted. Stay engaged with your conversation partner, even when she’s looking away.

Lastly, you need to be able to determine that your partner is actually done talking. I’m pretty sure you’ll pick up on that. Look out for a changed posture, a relaxed face, little clues like that. But don’t give in too quickly. Sometimes, someone will say they’re done, when they’re not. Hopefully, you’ll be able to tell when this happened, because there are no hard rules to determine it has.

But that’s all. By being quiet and completely attentive, you can create a Thinking Environment and unleash your partner’s thinking potential. It will take some practice, though. Practice to feel comfortable when things go quiet. You’ll need to learn that silence isn’t always awkward, because it could be your partner is busy thinking. There’s nothing awkward about that. Practise your listening face and posture, and practice finding out the subtle clues indicating your partner’s done, which may take longer than you think.

How good a listener will you be? Will you be shutting the hell up? Will you be listening to understand, with complete and utter focus on your partner, in order to ignite her mind? Please, I implore you, be that kind of listener.

It’s probably the greatest gift you can give anyone.

*Image attribution: ‘Silence’ by dr_zoidberg — CC BY-SA 2.0. The girl in this photo is not the friend I wrote about.

Image attribution: Nancy Kline — AZ Quotes

About this text: this is the written version of a speech I gave at a Toastmasters meeting as my third Project Speech.

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