Have you ever been in a conversation that raised your levels of fear and anxiety? So much so that it seemed like people were drawing out your frustrations like a snake charmer?
What if there was a way to take part in conversations that left you feeling curious and not anxious? Excited and not fearful?
The way to better conversations is to put down your ego and listen.
Listen with curiosity.
Listen to understand.
Listen with empathy,
with your heart.
Greg McKewon referred to listening as magic in this most recent 1-minute Wednesday newsletter:
I want to be a better listener. Because it’s the closest thing to magic that we have in relationships. When I listen with empathy to a client, an employee, or a family member everything changes. Isolation is turned into connection. Distance is turned into presence. Frustration is turned into understanding.
To unlock this magic we need to understand what it means to listen. In its most rudimentary form, listening is the ability to accurately receive and understand messages from another person. Steven Covey, in the now-classic work on leadership and productivity, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says:
If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Listening with curiosity is different than only listening and hearing words.
Covey notes: “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.”
There are two different approaches you can take in a conversation. I can hear someone say, “I don’t want to grow up!” and think to myself, “that’s ridiculous, everyone has to grow up. It’s biological.” Or I can listen to someone say, “I don’t want to grow up” and understand that there is a message and feeling behind those worlds. You might think to yourself, “They are happy with how things are in their life right now and are perhaps scared of what may change as they grow up and have more responsibility. I can relate to that.”
When we listen only in an effort to prepare our response and disagree with the other person we are focused on ourselves. This is called shallow or autobiographical listening. We are hearing words but we’re not understanding the message. This tends to happen when our ego shows up on the scene. Our ego swoops in whenever a conversation has the potential to be important or emotional. Our ego keeps us from truly listening to the other as a means of misguided self-protection.
When the ego becomes involved, we get ready for battle. We hear the words spoken by the other person, see our opportunity to contradict, or show how smart we are. As soon as there is a break in the conversation the words come spilling out of our mouths and into the fray. Simultaneously, and often unconsciously, our anxiety is spiked.
We know (even if we are not consciously aware of it) that our retort will not be met with acknowledgment and awe at our insight. How often in conversations with your partner or your children have you said, “Thank you for swiftly correcting me like that. Much appreciated.”
After our response, we now have to anticipate that the other person will have listened to us in the same way we listened (or didn’t) to them. They’re preparing their counter-argument to our reply. So we prepare for that volley in a state of fear and anxiety.
A classic example of this is the “Well, actually…” conversation. Those words are a recipe for tense communication:
Loved one: “It’s surprising how much traffic there is on our way to the restaurant tonight.”
Shallow Listener: “Well actually, it’s not surprising at all. It’s a beautiful evening, we’re in a busy part of town, and really…”
Loved one: “You missed our turn. I’m not hungry anymore.”
Not effective communication.
We repeat this process throughout our day to varying degrees. When the conversation is important to one or both of the participants, where emotions are justifiably stirred, the cycle can spin up very quickly, and lead to a dramatic breakdown in communication. Our ego steps in to ensure that we don’t have to admit that our position is wrong or that we might benefit from changing some aspect of ourselves. Carl Rogers notes (my emphasis) that if we engage in listening with true curiosity and we
are willing to enter [the other’s] private world and see the way life appears to [them], without any attempt to make evaluative judgments, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see things [their] way; you might find that [they have] influenced your attitudes or your personality.
Unless we are able to listen with curiosity we will only hear the threat to our ego (our current fixed position) and miss the opportunity to grow. We will likely respond with some form of reactive argument.
None of this is inevitable.
We can short circuit this cycle by learning to listen with curiosity and invoke the magic of conversation. Carl Roger’s says,
However, once you have been able to see the other’s point of view, your own comments will have to be drastically revised. You will also find the emotion going out of the discussion, the differences being reduced, and those differences which remain being of a rational and understandable sort.
The investor Ray Dalio, in his book, Principles, notes that in order to achieve the state of letting the ego go that Rogers describes, “it requires you to replace your attachment to always being right with the joy of learning what’s true.” If you don’t replace this attachment Dalio notes, “accept that you will never live up to your potential.” As Covey stated above, this is the most important move to have successful interpersonal communications. It is magic.
Here are three things you can begin to do right now to help you become a better listener
1) Acknowledge that you want to listen with curiosity.
When I acknowledge that I want to listen to others with curiosity and to listen to understand them, I put my ego in check. This requires the internal step of actively appreciating the value in the other person. You say to your ego “you’re not needed right now. I’m listening to the other.” Their words are valuable and are not self-reflective.” Be genuinely curious as to what they have to say. Desire to understand them. The meditation instructor, Oren Jay Sofer says,
We have to be willing to put down our own thoughts, views, and feelings temporarily to truly listen. It’s a wholehearted, embodied receptivity that lies at the core of both communication and contemplative practice.
2) Move beyond the words.
Listen for the message behind the words. When you read a story, you don’t just digest words, you read to capture the theme. When you look at a piece of art, you observe it and attempt to understand what is being communicated by the artist, through the work. The same is true when communicating. Just as in the example above, it’s the difference between hearing the words “I don’t want to grow up,” and understanding the message behind the words. It’s helpful to identify the feeling or motivation behind the words being spoken.
Again, Rogers is helpful here,
Real communication occurs … when we listen with understanding. What does this mean? It means to see the expressed idea and attitude from the other person’s point of view, to sense how it feels to them, to achieve their frame of reference in regard to the thing they are talking about.
This is impossible if we’re listening with the intent to reply. We have to put down our ego and listen. This is the most important aspect of listening with curiosity.
3) Avoid assuming you know what the other person means with perfect clarity.
This is why Covey calls it “seeking to understand.” As you listen for the message behind the words and appreciate their frame of reference, you must take the skillful turn to check your understanding. To believe we perfectly understand the other is another ego trap. Instead, reflect back your understanding and be open to a reframing. “It sounds like you don’t want to grow up because of all the responsibilities that you’ll have as a result.” This can be achieved without a question, instead, a simple reflection of the feeling we sense from the message, “Yeah, growing up can be scary.”
It is important here to avoid a reflection or clarification that is laden with evaluation or judgment. That’s the ego’s insidious way to insert itself. “Why are you scared to grow up, everyone has to do it?” This question captures the feeling but turns into an evaluation that will likely cause them to react against the implicit evaluation.
Making the effort to listen with curiosity has the magical ability to ease the fear and anxiety that we take into our communication by setting our ego aside, opening us up to the other, and allowing a conversation to unfold with less judgment and evaluation.
When someone understands how it feels and seems to be me, without wanting to analyze me or judge me, then I can blossom and grow in that climate.
Follow these steps the next time you are about to enter into a conversation with someone who usually gets your hackles up or you find yourself frustrated with. Open your mind, set aside your ego, and listen with curiosity.
You will be amazed at the results.