What does that mean? That we’re frustrated, yes, but why?
Personally, I think we want people to listen not just to understand the words we say, but the meaning we intend to convey as well. That’s a heavy burden to place on a listener, especially if we are having a difficult time and may be confused by strong emotions, or may even still be working out what we are trying to convey.
We want people to understand our feelings about the topic and why it means so much to us, to respect those feelings, but being a good listener is a very complex task, not only because our messages might be confused, but because we don’t all listen in the same way or for the same things.
We’ve all had experiences that suggest that people have “selective memory,” when listening, but what if memory isn’t deliberately “selective?” What if memories are based on intellectual and emotional traits that are different from one person to another, and therefore, affect what we hear? After a meeting people will remember the general discussion in pretty much the same way, but remember specifics differently. They will focus on what was most important to them, and consequently, may have a different idea of what was most important to the group as a whole.
What contributes to the confusion?
First, every message has two levels, content and relationship, and we get both messages all the time. What we focus on, though, may be different.
For example, I’m very left-brained and focus on information, but in one job, I worked for someone who was completely focused on relationship messages. I was sure she didn’t understand half of what I was saying and was disregarding the work I’d done, so I was frustrated and kept insisting that we talk about content when she wanted to build relationship by talking about nail polish and silk shirts. Once I finally understood that she knew the work was being done well and didn’t need to talk about it, I was comfortable with whatever conversation we had, and the working relationship was much more successful.
Second, because good listening can be hard to define and/or measure, we can’t pin down a single list of traits that contribute to good listening. Instead, we can review different listening assessments and see how they help us understand what good listening might be. These assessments also provide a vocabulary with which to discuss listening, so just having more specific language helps to clarify the issues. Many can be found online, but the two I have used and found helpful are:
The “Listening Styles Profile” also called the “LSP-16,” assesses the listener’s preference for different kinds of information. Some people, like me, are very content oriented, while others, like that manager, are very relationship or people oriented.
The “Personal Listening Profile” published by Wiley/Center for Internal Change, assesses listening approaches. Are you, for example, listening to evaluate either the speaker or the content, or are you listening to demonstrate empathy?
The bottom-line answer to the question of what makes a good listener is, for me, “it depends.” On what? On the speaker’s need. If I need you to be empathetic because I am in emotional distress, then I need an empathetic listener, not a problem-solver, at least not right then. If I need suggestions for what to do next, then perhaps I need someone to listen with a more action-oriented approach. As the need changes, so does the listening style need to change as well.
And maybe that is why defining a good listener can be so difficult: there is more than just one definition. Assessments give us a vocabulary to start discussing aspects and approaches to listening, and that is helpful, but the most applicable answer is a person who is sensitive enough in the moment to know what the speaker needs to feel supported and to be able to provide it.
So here’s the challenge: What do you think is the most important aspect of being a good listener? What has been the most important part of feeling fully heard?