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Mountians and Lake

What Makes Us Good Listeners?


I’ve written before that being a good listener is a demanding task, requiring that you understand the meaning, feelings, and implications of what someone is saying and respond appropriately in the moment.


Recently I came across the TED Radio Hour on NPR, and coincidentally, the program was on “The Act of Listening.” It was absolutely brilliant and included stories by David Isay, who created Story Corps for NPR, and speakers on sound and its effects, the sounds of what is left of the big bang (did you know Pluto has a distinctive audio profile?), and even comments on how we hear with our bodies as well as our ears from a deaf percussionist. Here’s the link: It’s brilliant, and it has implications for all of us.


The speakers in the program describe listening as an act of generosity, of profound respect, and that raised the question of whether we are good listeners, and if not, how can we get better at it? Can we offer these generous gifts of respect with our current behaviors?


Three ideas contribute to whether or not we are good listeners:


1. Do we pay the same attention to speakers that we would like to have paid to us? Do we even make eye contact?

2. What listening role do we generally take?

3. Do we respond to each situation as a new event or do we respond “from memory?”


You can probably answer the first question by thinking of your own behavior. Ask yourself:


  • Are you fully involved and present in the conversation?

  • Do you listen in distracting situations and let the distractions overwhelm the conversation?

  • Do you ask thoughtful, clarifying questions?

  • Do you interrupt with suggestions or examples from your own life when people are telling you about their lives?


If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then maybe your listening skills need spiffing up.


In "Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together", William Isaacs identifies three listener roles that can cause immense difficulty: movers, disabled bystanders, and cowed followers. Wow. Harsh.


Movers are those who push “past others to champion their view.” They are not good listeners because they are listening only to discover what they want to promote for themselves. In the Thomas-Kilmann model of having five conflict behaviors, these people would be the “competitors,” those who act on their own self-interest to the detriment of the interests of others or of the group. They are listening for an opportunity (or just taking it) to promote themselves.


“Disabled bystanders” is, unhappily, a role I had for a long time, in fact, until I discovered mediation. People in this group have not yet developed their own voices (even if they have their own ideas), have not developed the confidence or skills to express their opinions or needs without being antagonistic or destructive. These are also people who are very quiet for a long time and then “blow up,” much to the surprise of others who did not know this group held such strong opinions. It’s like having an on/off switch; I either shout or say nothing. Of course this behavior damages relationships, but it also damages the confidence of the person speaking because that person knows the behavior is ineffective and even damaging, but has no other voice to use. In this case, the most frequent conflict behavior is silence, until of course there is an explosion.


“Cowed followers” are intimidated by authority and will not offer other perspectives; they are quiet and agreeable, but that fear and the lack of skill in expressing another point of view doesn’t mean that they don’t hear, only that they are reluctant to speak and they, too, haven’t found their voices. Their preferred behaviors are probably avoiding and accommodating, which work for them, but we need people with new perspectives in our discussions and have to find ways to help them find their voices. We might also have to find a way of telling the person in authority that perhaps that authority is being misused.


While these terms are harsh, it is often helpful to have terms to describe behaviors that capture their essence, and indeed, the problems behind the behaviors. With that information we can begin to address improving our listening skills.


Listening also requires a certain, neutral mindset to be thoughtful and receptive. When I was a volunteer for the LA County Superior Court, I used my driving time to clear my head on the way to the court, to stop focusing on details, and get ready to listen to the participants.


However, most of us listen “from memory” most of the time, according to Isaacs. As we start to listen we remember the emotions associated with previous, similar situations or messages, and respond to the current message in the same emotional context as the one we remember. (Think of what happens when someone uses the same critical line that one of your parents used when you were six!) The emotional response, the listening from the “net of thought” cast on a particular situation, means that you cannot bring neutrality to the current act of listening, that listening is colored by emotions that may have absolutely nothing to do with the current situation. It’s unfair to listen to others as if they were other people with other interests and needs speaking from another time. In this case, we need to ask ourselves if we are completely present when we listen.


Ken Cloke, the internationally recognized mediator in Santa Monica, CA, is one of the most extraordinary listeners I have ever met, and most everyone has the same opinion. When Ken listens, his eye contact is constant and thoughtful; he’s paying attention. You have the feeling that you are the only other person on the planet even in the very crowded room where you may be talking. Being listened to so thoughtfully and completely is a gift, and those of us who have received that gift are always grateful.


Here’s the link again: It’s brilliant radio with messages for all of us – if we listen.

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