four exercises to practice your active listening skills
newsletter #16 | 20-Sep-2016
I got involved in a Twitter discussion about how a writer defined “active listening” in a UX Booth article:
I took a look at the article, Three Ways to Teach Your Team Empathy, and saw that the author, Jennifer Winter, wasn’t directly defining active listening, but instead offering an exercise she thought might help people gain skill in the area. There are three exercises in the article. It’s the third exercise that refers to active listening, but the exercise is actually from a college course about overcoming anxiety about getting on stage and acting. The exercise is to go out and responsibly eavesdrop, then report back to the class to describe the emotions expressed by the speakers. It’s an exercise in recognition of emotion, presumably so you can try on those emotions as an actor. Perfectly valid.
Here’s what I think Jennifer meant to clarify in her article:
Active listening is not simply about trying to recognize a person’s emotion. Empathy is not simply about recognizing or feeling a person’s emotion. Emotion is one aspect of these, certainly, but what you want is a richer understanding of the inner voice of a person: Why did they think the things they thought? Why did they react in that way? What is the history that lead up to the inner landscape that is continually unfolding within a person’s mind?
The way I teach active listening (and the way Steve Portigal teaches it) encompasses support for deeper understanding, development of rapport, and non-directed conversation that is nonetheless guided to get into the nuances of a person’s thinking. Here are the things I want to untangle so that an active listening exercise is more productive.
- The definition of active listening
- Anxiety about talking to strangers
- Getting beyond the thin outer layer
- Appreciating how other people conduct a conversation
The following four sections explain the nuances of practicing your active listening skills.
1. Active Listening
The common definition of active listening is to listen without thinking about your own reply. (As referenced in Tom Greever’s recent tweet below.)
Active listening is to listen with the intent to understand the other person better, by asking to clarify certain points and by temporarily dropping your own thinking and perspective to get a better grip on the nuances of the other person’s thinking and perspective. This definition means there is a bit of back-and-forth, not complete silence on one end. Eavesdropping is listening to someone’s conversation without them knowing. You don’t get to participate, and therefore you can’t guarantee that you’ll really understand what is said. You don’t get to check the validity of your guesses and assumptions.
2. Anxiety About Talking to Strangers
This anxiety is a real thing. You might feel shy or not skilled enough in active listening, or you might feel like it’s impolite or nosy to pry in to a stranger’s way of thinking. For all these reasons, I encourage everyone to dip their toe in. Try it in tiny bits. Getting a stranger into conversation is a fantastic skill to have, even if it results in occasional embarrassment when you reveal your assumptions.
Yes, I still dip my toe in. I talk to strangers every time I can. By now it’s a reflex, actually. To clarify, “every time I can” is a combination of opportunity and my own mood, which coincide at least a few times a week. I strike up conversations in the purchase/checkout line, with other shoppers at the farmers market, after a workout, while waiting for the bus … anywhere that is time-bounded, so the stranger doesn’t think I’m going to be that annoying won’t-shut-up seatmate on a long flight. I start by mentioning something that we both just experienced. For example, at the bus stop: “The bus seems late, or I wonder if I missed it.”
“Active” listening is not passive. It requires interaction and support for the other person. Also, it’s one-on-one, not a group thing. The idea with this exercise is to establish enough trust with the stranger that they’re willing to tell you their reasoning about a something in that brief span of time. Trust builds by showing the stranger how interested and supportive you are. You show this by treating them like the expert (because they are the expert on their own inner thinking), asking questions to help you understand what the person meant, and showing real interest in and support for the humanity of the person. Trying your hand at this in short encounters feels a lot safer than trying it in its long format during research — plus the short length will keep you and the stranger relatively safe from awkward mess-ups.
3. Getting Beyond the Thin Outer Layer
Have you ever been seated at a big round table at a conference, a party, or a wedding, either surrounded by people you don’t know well, or feeling sorry for the one person who doesn’t seem to know anyone in the group? You may have tried conversation. This conversation is the perfect circumstance for practicing your skill at getting deeper. You have a little more time than in the exercise above.
You want to be able to recognize an opinion or a preference when you hear it. You want to be able to recognize an explanation or a statement of fact. And you want to go beyond these things. They are just the shell that a person presents to the outer world as shorthand for their guiding principles and inner thinking and emotional reactions. The shorthand isn’t always necessarily very expressive. Individuality is lost. Assumptions abound. Us-versus-them polarization dictates the content of conversation. There’s no true human connection at the shell level. If you practice, if you form rapport like you do in the short time-span exercise, within 10–13 minutes you can usually get within the shell. (Caveat: this is one-on-one with someone at the table, where no one else is really listening. More listeners means more chance of feeling judged, so the shell stays in place.)
At so many weddings I seem to end up at the table where the hosts hope “friends from various places will probably get along.” I remember sitting at one table where one of these friends and I got into a deep discussion of why the architectural details of any building he was in would attract his attention. His reasons were different than mine. For example, there were columns in a church with a petal-like decorative element every few feet. He was scrutinizing the columns more for how they were built than for how they were decorated. And there was a history for that involving his work as a contractor decades back. At another wedding I sat next to a fashion designer from NYC (those seven words intimidate me) and managed to have a 40-minute conversation about her creative inspiration and the reasoning along the path of her career. I skirted the minefield of self-recrimination about my fashion choices and instead focused entirely on how her mind works. It was fun. Many of these kinds of deep conversations are fun — especially when they lead to a place that my own thinking has avoided or made assumptions or opinions about. Realizing the presence of these things in my own mind stretches my thinking, and that makes me happy. (Caveat: some deep conversations explore a person’s painful experiences, and those are hard, not fun, but equally powerful and engaging.)
4. Appreciating How Other People Conduct a Conversation
I do eavesdrop on people’s conversations sometimes, but it’s not to practice my listening skills. It’s to understand how two people converse and draw each other out or express their personality, etc. I’m always impressed with how naturally strangers work out how to talk to each other. Observing how conversation works between other people can help you identify when a person is actively listening or not. This recognition is important. It’s a great use of eavesdropping.
A conversation I overheard while commuting on the ferry stands out in my mind. It was between two people who had never met and just happened to sit in the same row. It was late evening and one of them had apparently opened a sketchbook. (They were seated in the row behind me, so I didn’t turn around to look.) The other person commented they were a fan of sketching, and the conversation began. Over the course of the next thirty minutes, the sketchbook-owner talked about how they got into sketching and how the practice changed for them over the years. The part I remember was the idea of travel and sketching — sitting in a place long enough to pick out details and sketch it all, thereby giving the sketcher a much better sense of the place. Not only did the sketcher capture physical details, but they experienced scents, the air temperature, passage of light and shadow, as well as conversations around them, behavior of people in that place, and overall mood. It left an indelible memory of the place which the sketcher valued deeply, and their sketch was a way of re-invoking the feeling or the lesson learned from the place. In these thirty minutes, the first speaker expressed strong support for the sketcher, elicited these philosophies, and did not spent much time talking about their own perceptions. It was a masterful example of active listening.
There are many conversations I’ve overheard that were not masterful, or that dwelt only in opinion-land and left both participants frustrated and upset. I also “overhear” conversations on podcasts. There was one example, in an NPR podcast no less, called Code Switch. I will give them a break because it was in their first episode. One of the hosts had called up an interviewee — a student at a college. He called her ma’am. She said, “I’m from California, so your ma’am makes me feel old.” With that, she firmly established that she wanted to control what he was saying, thereby shutting down any natural sort of responses the student could have given her. It’s a valid way to conduct an interview, but it’s not a good way to establish rapport and urge a person to share their inner voice.
These exercises offer a variety of ways to help you dip your toe in — to practice active listening and feel safe exploring another person’s mind in a forgiving context. You can also listen to other people’s conversations to learn to identify when someone else is actively listening. This level of awareness is the foundation of making active listening a key skill for yourself.