Master the Art of Listening

You are not bad at remembering people’s name, you are just bad at listening.

Being a good listener is rarely just a personality trait. It takes efforts and practice, and most importantly self-awareness. I remember when I was 15, I picked up one of those old books from my dad’s closet: How to influence people by Dale Carnegie. At that time, the idea of listening was first introduced into my mind. The only thing is: it didn’t stick.

I first noticed is by experiencing for myself. I start to analyze those really good conversations I had and break them down into patterns and small things in which I did right or wrong. After years of practice, I will look at interviews online to study how good interviews were conducted and how the conversation flow was made, the body language and insight hidden beneath.

This article isn’t about me and my story; indeed, it is about you. I hope I can stop making the mistake of failing to give you the practical steps to help you understand and practice.

Before we start, a quick test to see if you are a good listener, I will explain the reasons behind in later article.

1. Are you good with remembering people’s names?

2. Do you often find conversations with others boring?

Jordan B Peterson

“The goal of the conversation is by the end of the conversation, two people should all got a little bit better than they were before the conversation”-JBP

How does one get better after the conversation?

There are an in-ward and out-ward expansions of the mind during the conversation. The In-ward expansion is a deeper self-realization of the self. On the other hand, the out-ward expansion is an increasing awareness and knowledge you gain from the others. Both can be gained when listening is introduced.
 When the person you are talking to is listening, you get to dive deeper in yourself and finding out the things you don’t know about yourself or the things that were unclear but now you get to clear it out. Often time it forces you to dive deep to connect things which you wouldn’t normally make the connection. This practice requires a listener, the one that truly engage with you.

The outward expansion happens when you are the one who is listening. We often speak out the things we already knew and fail to listen to others. In china, there is a saying “Three people on the road, one of them is my teacher”. Always assume that the other person you are talking to know a few things that you don’t. Wouldn’t it be good to get a little wiser at the end of the conversation? I think the answer is yes.

A good start is half of the battle.

I used to be horrible at remembering people’s name. It was so bad, sometimes I forget people’s names right after they told me. Most of the time I told people sorry that I am bad at names and most of the time people will say it’s ok.

(But it’s not ok)

Until one day, I realized it’s not that I am bad with names. It’s the fact I am bad at listening. Now think back to the times I had first met someone. It appears to me I had no true intention to find out the name in the first place. Why is that?

Because I had an agenda in my mind or another question in my mind already before the words flew out of my mouth. I wasn’t paying attention and rushed right into it. The first question has shifted from “what is this person’s name” to “Ice break into another question to get over the first introduction”.

Ironically, name is actually one of the things people care the most. Think of all the companies’ names that are actually founders’ name you will get some idea. It is the sound that person holds most dear. It has the power in itself that naming becomes a creation. Failing to remember one’s name is another way of saying “I don’t care about who you are, and I am not willing to put in the effort to remember it. Because it is not important”. If you aren’t even willing to listen and remember the simple thing like a name, how do people expect you to listen to any things that are more complicated than that?

The next time when you meet someone, make sure you get their name down at the first try. You can even make them repeat while you repeat in your own mouth. The key is not to rush into the next question on your list but to truly appreciate the other person and make an effort to remember the name. That not only shows people you care but also set a frame for the following interaction.

Eye contacts

Your eyes should gaze into the others to establish a connection. Not for the sake of showing. But actually, where our eyes aim, sets a purpose. On a biological perspective, we have a super high definition vision on a focal point, the visual around the focal point slowly turning into low resolution then almost no visual on the near end of left and right. When we gaze into the eyes, we are literally connecting. Which means when the other person is gazing back, in some way, the rest of the visual becomes secondary and blurry. Although it might sound cliché, it goes along with the line “when our eyes met, nothing else matters.”

If you pay close attention, when the other person is diving deep in the conversation which often bring back the past, they tend to break the eye contacts for a few seconds. Because they can’t go deep if their attention is on you at that moment.

It costs energy, and it also brings forward vulnerabilities. In order to think deeper, you break the eye contact to “time travel” back in time or the future. When you notice that, be sure to make extra attention to meet the eye contact when the person reestablishes the gaze. Make sure you let the person plug back into “connected” mode. (This also works in a group setting. What I will do when bringing a topic into the conversation is to slowly gaze on everyone to connect and engage before the conversation even starts.)

It brings forward vulnerabilities. Nothing kills a conversation when the person looks back at you just to realize your eyes were looking at other things or you were checking your phone. The moment they look away is almost as if they are showing you he most vuernable part of the body and you are the one who ought to provide them a safe harbor by paying attention. Otherwise, 90 percent of the time, the conversation will end in the other person feeling disrespected or even betrayed. When the other person finds out you were still engaging, you start to establish a very safe environment for him/her to give you more.

The flow

If you often find the conversation boring, you might not be listening. Often time, when you truly listen, people will tell you the weirdest things about their life. When the conversation is boring, either you are not listening or the other is not listening. Both cases, due to the lack of listening, neither side is willing to dive deep into the conversation.

The flow is important. First, you need to get rid of your agenda driven mode when you are listening. When the other person is talking, often times there are going to be key words popping into your mind (This happens quite a lot with very intelligent people, people with high openness trait). It is natural to pick up the signals and started to organizing questions or things to say before that even happen. When that’s the case, you are tuning out the other person. Instead of this pattern, try to desensitize the urge to intervene and find out what’s the right follow up question to push the conversation even deeper. Let me give you an example between a male and a female.
 “I love travelling. I went to Hawaii last summer with my boyfriend, it was super fun but at the end of the vacation we broke up….but yeah, I love the weather there and people are super friendly.”

Your mind might have picked up a few key words already “Hawaii” “boyfriend” “Travelling”. But remember it’s not about you, listen and ask the right question. What question should you ask?

a. Keep asking traveling, what exactly did she do

b. The broke up with the BF

c. The weather and people

d. Change topic completely

Depends on the situation, but I would not focus on C. The weather and people is just a cover up for the real impact, the breakup, to ease it into a less tension situation between you, the person she is talking to. A is a safer choice, but in my opinion, I would go for b. Also, some people completely switch the topic, that’s like saying “whatever you said means nothing, I am just going to do what I want.”
 She mentioned the BF for a reason, even though sometimes she doesn’t even realize it. But clearly it manifests enough to pop out at this moment. “Sorry to hear about the breakup, I had previous experience like that, do you want to talk about it? I know it can be tough especially on vacations”. At the same time, put your arm around her or give her a gentle touch on the side of the arm to create comfort.

None of this is manipulation, it is any person that genuinely cared would ask, following the cue she gave you. First you establish the empathy of the fact she broke up. Second you gave her a permission to talk more about it. Last, you redirect the attention to make sure she feels safe.” If she says it’s ok then redirect to A.

5 seconds rule

The 5 seconds rule is this: when the other person stopped talking, you need to wait for 5 seconds before saying anything.

A lot of people think the silence is awkward and not good when it comes to conversation. But actually, no one is asking why is it not good. Why the rush?

Give the other person 5 secs (or even more) to elaborate further. What you often find is people will go deeper when you give them the space to breathe. During the 5 seconds, do not disengage. Simply sit back, relax and give your attention to the other informing that everything is ok. Nothing is to worry about.

In most of the cases, they will continue on. Almost always, and let them do the talking. Sometimes they will ask you a question. Both cases are good. But remember if you are all tensed up, they can feel it too. It’s all about how you view the silence and your state of being in that moment matters.

The matching

This is a surprising finding from one of the books I recently read: the way of the wolf. The author is the true wolf of the wall street and the designer of straight line sale system. I knew the idea of body matching long time ago. However, picking up some listening idea from a business book is still a good found. The idea is to match what the other person is positioning. However, this is not what we are going to talk about today. What I found is a different type of matching mentioned in the book: Emotion matching.
 I would like to call it the energy field matching. It requires a lot attention to details. You simply feel the other person’s energy level: high, neutral, low. Then you match with the similar energy with that person. I witnessed it in one of the London Real Interview, where Brian was interviewing Grant. They were talking about how those drugs addiction treatment centers were doing more harm than the goods by replacing one addiction to another. During the interview at that topic, you can see Grant’s energy is raising and shows a strong dislike toward the drug addiction treatment center. At that moment, Brian did a very brilliant energy matching simply by expressing a similar dislike and anger back toward Grant at almost the same level.

The energy field matched perfect, the flow seems effortlessly. But again, I do believe sincerely believe what Grant is saying. By all means, this article is not telling you to fake things that are not you and agree on whatever the other person is saying.

I have one friend of mine who is very high energy and hyped about situation. Often times, other people tell me it’s very hard to make him do things or influence in a way. It was not the case with me. I treat him like a brother and he is still my brother in my heart. What I did was different than the others. Instead of going in doing the “you did wrong, and here is why” type of approach. I went in to match his emotion. If he is pissed off, I go in pissed off.

One time he was very upset with a decision that his professor made.
 Him: “I can’t believe the professor told me that my essays is below average, and he said I have to redo it!”
 Me “WHAT!? Is he serious about this?” (More angry)

Him: “Yeah! I spent two weeks on this, now I have to redo it..”

Me: “This is absolutely bullshit. You worked hard on it, I knew that. This is just so unfair!”
 Him: “Yeah…I did spend a lot of time on it. But maybe some parts are not so good.” (energy level dropping)

Me: “But hey, let me take a look at it. There could be something you can improve on, and next time you will be better, right?” (lowering energy and apply influence to change)

Him: “Yeah for sure, I am going to talk to him again to see what are the points to improve on and I will do it better.”

Me: “Yeah, that’s a good idea. I am proud of you and now let’ go grab a beer.”

Before we end this topic, there are a few things I need to clarify. Being a good listener requires self-awareness and being present. Moreover, a sincere desire for being good and positive. I talked a lot about the steps and break downs from an outside perspective. I didn’t talk about my meditation and a lot of other practices that contributed into being a good listener.

In order to truly understand and be better. You need to realize none of these will help if you use it only as tools but fail to practice within you. It reminds me one of the all-time famous ted talk about body language. “Fake it until you make it” the speaker said. Now next time when you are talking with someone, remember to listen.

I want to say thank you for reading al this if you have made this far.
My mission is to help everyone including myself to be better every day with a practical and sustainable way of approaching challenges. Join me and let’s start the journey together.
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