Listening Part 2

Back in January, Moonshot hosted a skill-sharing workshop on listening as a part of our new inspiration series, Moonshot U. This is the second half of the story.

Having learned three different ways to listen (see: Listening Part 1), we aimed to address some of the obstacles that keep us from doing a good job of it. Most of those obstacles fall into two categories: attention and intention. And, as I see it, those two categories have a few special components.

ATTENTION = presence & trust

Presence
You know the drill. No multitasking. No phones. No TV in the background. Make eye contact. Do what you need to do to be there. Whether or not we practice it, all of us know how to be present with someone. But one thing few people seem to know is that, if you can’t do that, you should say so! If you can’t be present when someone is trying to speak to you, honestly and respectfully tell them that you want to listen, but you don’t have enough resources at the moment. Let them know you need to take care of yourself a little and come back when you can really be there, that you are pausing because it matters to you to be present. Then, you know, make sure you actually follow up and do the listening. Just know that it’s ok to opt out. No one can be a listener all the time, and it is right to let someone know you don’t have what they need in that moment. If they were to ask you for directions to an address you didn’t know, you wouldn’t make them up, so if they ask for your attention, don’t fake that either.

Trust
I was going to call this “patience” but it felt too virtuous, so I decided to go with a light and easy topic like “trust.” This might seem like a stretch, but ask yourself this:

  • If you have ever felt distracted because you felt under pressure to reply cleverly?
  • Have you ever thought of a story, and then stopped listening because you didn’t want to forget to tell it?
  • Have you ever felt worried that if you didn’t ask enough probing questions, you would not get the information you needed?
  • Have you ever felt that the person speaking is the one in control, and that if you don’t say something, you will not have any power?

All of those listening obstacles are the result of fear. Fear that you won’t be enough, do enough, learn enough, appear enough. There are a few things we can do about fear, but the biggest part is simply a decision. It’s a leap of faith. Because, before we have the experience to prove that our fears are irrational, we must decide to trust. With that in mind:

  • Don’t spend your time composing a reply. Trust that your reply will be wiser when you have truly listened.
  • Let go of the need to share all of your stories. Let the stories come, and let them go. You will not run out of stories. Trust that the power of your stories lives in your experience, and not in the telling.
  • Ask questions, but don’t pry. Pushing someone into uncomfortable territory often produces inauthentic or veiled information. And if you need to know more, your speaker will be much more likely to open up if they feel their boundaries are respected. Trust that the information you receive is full and rich and, mostly importantly, exactly what your speaker wants to share.
  • Don’t worry about power. The person speaking is always much more vulnerable than the person listening. They may have authority. They may even have influence. But the power of influence is in the action taken by the one who is influenced — and that is the listener. Trust that your power can not be taken from you by a speaker, nor do you need to prove it by speaking over them.

INTENTION = non-judgment & generosity

Non-judgment
During the class, we watched a short video (this one) of Herbie Hancock telling a wonderful story about how Miles Davis handled a mistake that he made during a show. In the story, Miles Davis said, “yes, and” to Herbie Hancock’s wrong note, and played with it rather than against it, creating a new harmony where there was none. The power of that action is incredible, because he didn’t do it just to make Herbie feel better — he actually changed the destiny of the situation. When we listen, some of us struggle to find a “yes, and.” We want to correct, critique or improve on what has been said. But truly, if we want to encourage the speaker, very best thing we can say is, “tell me more.” It’s a conversation hack that never ever fails. It’s engaging without being nosy, and communicates that the listener is invested and interested.

Practicing non-judgment means more than refraining from criticizing someone for their choices or character. It means we must also delay our assumptions, interpretations, and reactions. In order to get the most open and clear communications from another person, they’ve got to feel safe to express themselves. And the best way to make someone feel safe is by making sure they are actually safe — from judgment, from unwanted exposure, from critique, or even from interruption. When we practice empathetic listening, we try not to assume we know what the other is saying. We resist the impulse to react, summarize, analyze or compare our experiences. Ask for stories, descriptions, and learnings. And allow some silence in between. We may think we are empathizing when we say, “me, too” or, “yeah, I know,” but we are not; we’re making an audacious assumption about another person and shutting down the exchange. It’s not awful. We all do it. But when we intend to refrain from judgment, we also have to refrain from a positive judgment.

Sometimes, it is exceptionally difficult not to judge someone. Because they are maybe a jerky jerkface in a jerksuit. I have a trick for that. Imagine that it is jerky jerk’s birthday, and that you have to write something in their birthday card. It is very hard to judge someone while you are wishing them well. Which brings us to the final and best thing.

Generosity
Would you say that you are self-centered? I would say that I am. It’s ok. As David Foster Wallace illustrated in his most glorious commencement address that you should absolutely read if you haven’t:

“Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”

It is completely normal and common and, dare I say, natural to be self-centered. But it is highly worthwhile to take a break from it.

In the class, we did a little exercise. We asked the group to partner up, and to talk about something that happened over the weekend without once uttering the word “I.” It’s a neat exercise because it immediately forces us to be conscious of the way we are speaking. Just making the effort to not be the subject of every sentence takes some doing. Imagine how hard it is to live that way.

Being generous means, among other things, letting go of needing to be the subject. If someone tells your that their grandfather just died, and it reminds you of when your grandfather died, please do not tell them that it is the same. It is not. It is never the same. Express sympathy, identify with them, but do not wrap up their experience in your own story. This is very hard to practice, I know. And the worst part is, it isn’t enough. Simply taking yourself out of the spotlight isn’t enough to be considered generous.

“Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don’t.”— Bill Nye
Being generous as a listener means to go a step further and make the bold assumption that the person in front of you is super-interesting, and has something fascinating and important to teach you. Someone once told me that “it isn’t generosity if it doesn’t hurt a little bit.” He was talking about people who congratulate themselves for giving their unwanted change or clothing to the poor, but the same works here. It is effortless and almost irresistible to give our attention and respect to the people we already adore. But what about those that kinda bore us? Or annoy us? What about those that hurt us? Practicing generosity will be tougher with some than others, but it is dumbfoundingly rewarding. Assume that you will be amazed every time you listen, and chances are, you will be.