There’s a lot of standard, cliché-ridden instruction out there on how to be a better listener. Most of it hovers around the tried-and-true “don’t listen to answer” directive – meaning, of course, don’t do what we all do: listen with half an ear whilst formulating our response (rebuttal, argument, disagreement…).
Or, put in more positive terms, “listen to hear.” Listen to understand the other person’s perspective, listen to get a sense of where they’re coming from, listen to achieve what I call “professional empathy.”
It’s all good advice, and the world would be a better place if we could do this just a little bit more often. (I’m not asking for always, just for a little more often!)
The challenge, of course, is that when we’re riled up about something we’re deeply interested in, profoundly disagreeing with, or sincerely passionate about, it’s hard to listen in those ways. We’re jumping up and down inside, bursting with our desire to speak out and wrapped up tight in our certainties about our position, opinion, desires, thoughts, and perspectives.
Then we become speechifiers. It’s no longer a conversation, or even a debate; it’s two people holding forth, orating almost independently of each other – or, more accurately, orating at each other.
The more the other person orates at us, the more entrenched we become in our own argument and opinion – and the more frustrated and angry we’re likely to get.
And it’s harder and harder to remember to listen to hear instead of listening to argue.
I’m going to suggest an even-more-radical approach that will be even harder to accomplish.
Are you willing to be changed?
I first heard this question on the very first episode of Alan Alda’s Clear and Vivid podcast. He was talking with the comedian Sarah Silverman, and the conversation was enchanting, engrossing, and educational (as are most, if not all, of Alda’s podcast episodes).
[Y]ou’re not really listening unless you’re willing to be changed by this other person.
I had the podcast playing in my car, and I nearly swerved off the road. Whoa. Now THAT is listening.
I’ve heard him say it many times now. He talks about how it’s affected him as an actor as well as off the stage, and it’s clear it’s an important value for him – and a profoundly impactful approach for his life.
I can’t say I’ve adopted it wholeheartedly, but I’m working on it.
What about you? Are you willing to be changed?