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Over the weekend I attended a protest rally and community listening session in our small Southern town, part of the recent wave of demonstrations that have swept the United States in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin. It was encouraging to see a crowd composed of people from many ages, races, and social backgrounds.
During the listening session, people signed up for two-minute slots and stood in front of the crowd with a microphone. There was no agenda except to listen. If I had to summarize one of the major themes I heard repeated in different ways by people of color, it would be this: Nobody has listened to us, and that’s why you’re seeing the anger and passion you’re seeing now. Nobody has listened.
All of us can stand to be better listeners. Positional leaders in particular can have far-reaching organizational impacts when they practice listening. But we need to recognize that there is great power for social change when citizens and leaders make space to really listen to each other.
Listening is not a cure-all, and the injustices that the black community has endured in America will require more than just listening for restitution and healing. But listening is necessary for thriving families, productive workplaces, healthy communities, and more just societies.
What is listening?
Research by Dr. Avi Kluger has found that being listened to improves almost everything about a person’s relationships and mental health. Listening can make us more open to others’ perspectives, makes for happier marriages, and is possibly as or more effective than cognitive behavioral therapy in treating depression. (Watch this brief talk in which Dr. Kluger shares some research summaries.)
Most of us know how it feels when someone isn’t listening to us. It can be harder to define exactly what listening is. Based on Dr. Kluger’s research, we’ve come up with a Leadership Essential that communicates the three core components of listening: Attention, Comprehension, and Intention.
This is the basic clearing-away of distractions. This creates the conditions in which one person can really hear another. Paying attention is foundational for all that follows. If we aren’t paying attention, we can’t process what we see and hear–we won’t even receive the data, let alone interpret it correctly or respond appropriately.
What makes it hard to pay attention? There are a few obvious answers: responding to notifications on our phone; having a conversation in a loud or unsafe environment; failing to make eye contact. There are less obvious things, like our mental-emotional state and whether we’re distracted at the moment. As a point of reflection, consider what most frequently distracts you or makes it difficult to concentrate on someone else when you’re with them and know you should be listening. If you don’t know, ask someone you trust for candid feedback.
Even if we’ve heard, we may not have understood. We all have mental models that shape how we perceive what we see and hear. This is our brain’s survival mechanism to help us make quick decisions when faced with potentially overwhelming amounts of sensory data. Many times these mental models are helpful; imagine, for example, if your brain needed to teach itself what a chair was every time you saw one. But these mental models also exclude data and cause us to “see the world as we are, not as it is” (Anais Nin).
This is an important factor in why many social media conversations go off the rails so quickly. Rather than seeking to understand, we are seeking to vent, to proclaim, or to respond. We assume someone’s motives (which may or may not be accurate) and then interact on the basis of those assumptions. It’s been said that we need to seek first to understand before seeking to be understood.
So how can we get better at comprehension?
- Ask questions more readily than making statements.
- When you ask questions, ask open-ended questions (questions that can’t simply be answered with “yes” or “no”). This helps draw out the other person’s perspective and increases trust in the conversation.
- Be self aware enough to recognize when what you mean might be obscured by what you say, and own that with humility and clarity: “I know that it might sound like I’m saying ____, but that’s not what I mean or intend. I’m just struggling to find the right words.”
- Try mirroring. This is a coaching skill in which we repeat back key words or phrases to confirm that we’re hearing someone correctly. You can also add your own interpretation or summary of what you heard, and ask, “Am I understanding you correctly?”
- Practice intentional dialogue with people who do not think like you. Most of us surround ourselves with people who are like us. This is easier in the short term, since we don’t have to work so hard at comprehension, but it can stunt our social-emotional growth in the long term.
Up to this point, we’ve been covering ground that’s typically covered by most good courses in active listening. But Intention is where Dr. Kluger’s research, and this Essential, really stand out. To listen well, you must intend to be changed by the person to whom you’re listening.
To listen well, you must intend to be changed by the person to whom you’re listening.
Notice that we did not say “intend to agree with them.” At this point we are basically speaking of a heart posture. It is possible to be fully inclined toward someone–truly intending to be changed by them–while disagreeing with most or even all of what they say.
This may feel impossible. But I believe that feeling says more about the polarized state of discourse today (at least here in the United States) than about what human beings are capable of.
Unlike paying attention or ensuring comprehension, intention must be cultivated in your heart before it is needed. It is not something that can simply be switched on in the moment. We must train our brains to interpret questions, conflict, and disagreement as progress, not as threats. Only then will we be able to open ourselves more fully to the person with whom we’re engaging. Only then will we listen to listen rather than merely listen to respond.
Challenge your patterns of engagement
Our brains tend to find and stay in patterns of speech, thought, and action. These patterns come to govern how we interact with other people in person and online: how we judge the truth or falsity of what people say, what motives we assume stand behind certain statements, what we find credible, and more.
Consider using the following questions to generate hours of fruitful reflection and conversation to help improve your ability to listen:
- When have you felt most listened to? What did that do for you?
- When did you last listen patiently to someone’s opinion with which you disagree? What was the outcome?
- As you consider George Floyd’s death and the wave of protests that have continued since then, what voices are you allowing to shape your perspective? How often do you listen to voices who contradict your previous assumptions, commitments, or beliefs?
- What percentage of your conversations about recent events have been (a) in person, not online, and (b) with someone who believes differently than you?
- What typically distracts you? What could you do about that?
- Who in your life needs you to listen to them? When will you do that?
- Where do you recognize that you’ve failed to listen well? Is there a specific setting (facebook, the office) in which it is harder for you, or are there specific issues that you find yourself unable to hear any opposing viewpoints? What could you do to grow in your ability to listen in these areas?
- What would look different in your life right now if you changed how you listen over the next few weeks?