Friday 6 December 2019

Well-being: How to listen

Real listening is active not passive

Dame Evelyn Glennie
Dame Evelyn Glennie
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Those who were lucky enough to meet the late David Bowie say that he had the ability to make you feel like you were the only person in the room.

This isn't the first time I've heard this kind of tribute made about a public figure. Princess Diana and Jackie Kennedy Onassis were also said to have this quality, as did Marlon Brando (if he took an interest in you). Apparently Bill Clinton has it too.

It's difficult to deconstruct the elusive quality that is charisma. However, I'd wager a bet that all of these people knew that when you really listen, there really is nobody else in the room.

Real listening - or passionate/active listening as it is otherwise known - is a rare skill. Most of us listen passively rather than actively. We try to pay attention, yes, but we're often elsewhere - thinking about what we're going to have for dinner or formulating an answer before the person talking has even finished their sentence.

When I interviewed Eckhart Tolle last year, he told me that real listening is about being "totally open and alert" and staying "in a state of not knowing". "Then you can trust that anything that can be said will come from a deeper level and, spontaneously, you'll find yourself saying just the right thing," he added.

Of course, this is much more difficult than it sounds. Most of us feel compelled to sustain the pace of a conversation, just as we fear the reverberating chasm of an awkward silence - even if that's where the answers lie.

Silence really is golden. Negotiators know that it is the best tool for exacting a counter-offer. Journalists know that it's the best way to elicit information. "We have two ears and one mouth," wrote the Greek philosopher Epictetus, "so that we can listen twice as much as we speak".

The other common mistake is to assume that the person speaking is seeking advice. Remember that nobody wants to hear "you should have" or "I would have". In fact, most people don't want advice even when they ask for it. They just want to be heard.

Real listening is about putting your ego to the side and remembering that this isn't an opportunity to wow someone with your wisdom or quick wit. Likewise, there is no need to offer a contrary viewpoint for the sake of it. This is a conversation, not a debate.

Misguided superiority is another barrier to active listening. It's best to approach a conversation as though you don't have the answer - even if you have a degree in the subject. This means withholding judgement. Don't assume that you know what they are going to say, or as the late Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply".

Real listening can only take place in the now. Therefore it's important to resist physical distractions, open up your body language and look the other person in the eye. Some experts advise us to occasionally repeat back what the person has said to acknowledge that they are being heard. Even the odd "uh-huh" helps - there's nothing worse than pouring your heart out over the phone only to have to stop mid-sentence and ask "are you still there?"

The deaf percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie delivered a memorable TED Talk on this subject. It's called How to Truly Listen and it's about how listening to music involves so much more than just passively letting "sound waves hit your eardrums".

Glennie goes on to compare how we listen to music to how we listen to one another, saying: "It's unbelievably important for us to really test our listening skills, to really use our bodies as a resonating chamber".

I've seen people use their bodies as a resonating chamber and it is a feat to behold. Author Byron Katie has this gift. I attended one of her events and I noticed an almost imperceptible rocking of her body when she answered participants' questions. It was like watching a string quivering on an instrument.

She became a resonating chamber in order to pick up on the subtle paralanguage of tempo, pitch and volume. "Do you know how I know?" she occasionally said to a participant after she answered their question. "Because you just told me".

Of course, sometimes listening - let alone active listening - becomes challenging. If you and a loved one are having difficulty seeing eye-to eye, try going somewhere where you are just ear-to-ear. Consider going for a walk or partaking in a shared activity where conversation feels less strained and self-conscious.

Alternatively, you could try back-to-back. One of my favourite Quora threads is entitled Self-Improvement: What are some good 'mini habits' to practise each day?, and one of the most unique pieces of advice comes from designer and writer Mauricio Estrella. He recommends "back-against-back discussions" to "hear your own voice resonate".

"I came up with the idea of sitting (or standing) leaning my back against my girlfriend's back whenever a discussion heats up and we need to resolve a dispute over something," he writes.

"What happens is that the arguing becomes significantly more objective... {and} you can pretty much listen to your own voice…"

It just goes to show that real listening opens up an entirely new conversation.

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