Listening: Why It’s Important and How to do it Better
Most of us are not naturally great listeners. Sure, we can be present and not say anything while the other person talks, but active listening is a challenging skill to master. Even if we make a conscious decision to listen, we often find our thoughts creeping into the “wet laundry we forgot to put into the dryer” area, or perhaps even into trying desperately to hold onto that idea that we wish to respond with. But why is listening so important, and how do we do it better?
Why Listening is Vital
The Function of Talking
It might sound counter-intuitive to explain the importance of listening by first discussing the function of talking, but bear with me. We speak to transmit ideas, bond with each other, and give direction — the list goes on and on. Our impressive language skills have allowed us to build complex societies and civilizations. However, there’s a much deeper psychological mechanism at play here. Talking helps us work out our issues in a therapeutic sense, which we will focus on in this article.
Carl Rogers, a clinical psychologist, believed that the best way to help people with their issues was simply to listen to them. He found in his clinical practice that by actively listening to people talk, they seem to work out their issues on their own. That is a truly remarkable idea — the best thing that you can do for people is to remain silent and listen!
Having a Listener
Interestingly, talking in and of itself isn’t the most effective. Having a good listener there is an essential part of the equation. Consider a person talking to themselves about their issues. This would certainly help — to talk, we must first organize our thoughts, and that can be very helpful. However, when speaking to ourselves, we are vulnerable to our own biases. Part of what makes having a listener essential is that they are offering a (hopefully) objective view on the situation, void of your subjectivity.
Fundamentally, having someone that is there and willing to spend their time listening to you makes you feel deeply cared about. It doesn’t necessarily validate your concerns, but it makes you feel valued because your concerns are being heard. How they respond following listening can provide you insight into how realistic your perspective is, moving you closer to truth. It is hard for us to see our own inconsistencies, and most of us lack complete self-awareness, so an external eye can be game-changing.
Becoming a Good Listener
Why Are We Terrible Listeners?
Given the above description of the benefits that listening can provide to the speaker, why are we terrible listeners? I believe that we simply prioritize our own problems over other people’s. This is a broad generalization, of course, but it is certainly the case that most people gravitate towards talking about themselves rather than listening to others talk about themselves. I will stop short of calling this “selfish”, although it can certainly be viewed as such. However, that is far from the complete picture, and people are absolutely capable of becoming great listeners with time.
The Reason to Listen
What is the secret of the great listeners among us? As far as I can tell, it seems to be that great listeners genuinely care about the other person. Consider a couple. Suppose each person deeply loves and cares for the other person. In that case, it makes sense that listening to each other in working out each person’s issues would be of utmost importance to the strength of the relationship.
The Practical Challenges
Even if the couple above agrees that listening is vital, there are nevertheless practical challenges. As mentioned briefly above, thoughts often come to us in the middle of listening. These may be completely random — such as “damn, I must take out the trash” — or they may be in relation to the conversation — such as “that reminds me of XYZ, I better remember that for when they stop talking”. Both of these achieve the same result — distracting you from listening.
How to Listen Better
Becoming a good listener takes time and practice, yet I have personally found that the below sequence seems to work well practically:
- Decide to listen. This may sound obvious, but it needs to be done every time you enter “listening mode”. When it is the other person’s time to speak, you must internally tell yourself, “now is the time to listen”.
- Act out the listening. Having actions attached to “listening mode” is incredibly beneficial. These can be very specific to you, but the most universal and important is watching the person (mainly in the eyes). Other possible actions include clasping your hands together, opening up your body language, and leaning forward.
- Bring yourself back to listening. Let’s be honest: your mind will drift. This is natural, so it’s best to be prepared for it. When this happens, you must simply bring your attention back to listening by saying to yourself again, “it’s time to listen”. This includes choosing to let go of whatever thought you are clinging to. As a podcaster, I understand the fear of looking stupid if you have nothing to say when they stop, but I’ve found that if I am willing to let those thoughts go, I generally have a much better response when they actually do stop talking.
Again, listening is hard, but becoming a good listener is essential to forming and maintaining good relationships. Don’t assume that you can become a great listener overnight, but also remind yourself that listening intently is a choice, and you can choose to do so at any time.
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.