10 Little-Known Rules in the Art of Listening


From the moment the first caveman interrupted his fellow Neanderthal with a grunt, the art of listening has been under attack. We may think 21st-century technology is the culprit for making all of us poor listeners, but really listening is a skill that has never been a default part of human nature. Each of us is geared toward maximizing our own self-interest, and truly absorbing another person’s thoughts through spoken communication means temporarily setting aside that self-interest. We can’t think of a better time than the holidays to learn a few forgotten tenets about the craft of listening.

  1. Listen actively, the right way:

    Every article on listening will have an obligatory mention of active listening, which we have all taken to mean: Every time the speaker finishes a sentence, you should say, “What I hear you saying is …” and then repeat their words back to them, slightly rephrased. But that is merely proving you’ve heard. Relationship guru/Oprah creation Dr. Phil explains that reflection of feeling, not fact, is more important in active listening. It involves not just parroting but processing, so that instead of replying to news of a dead grandmother with “When’s the funeral?,” you say, “I’m so sorry; you must be very upset.”

  2. Clean your lenses:

    Usually subconsciously, each of us sees the world through lenses, or filters, as some call it. These are complex constructs of our ego, our belief system, our fears, our prejudices, and more. The problem is, these lenses tend to color the way we take in information by listening. To listen effectively (and not just hear what you want to hear), you have to remember to check yourself to ensure your own biases and preconceived notions are not distorting the message. A sure sign this needs to happen is when you catch yourself judging the speaker or labeling them with a generality or stereotype.

  3. Make allowances for gender differences:

    You may swear up and down that you know this rule, but in the heat of an argument with your significant other, it usually goes right out the window (so maybe “little-remembered” is more accurate). Science has told us men only listen with half their brains, while women use the whole thing. This means that men can either think or feel, but they can’t do both simultaneously. Both men and women need to remain conscious of this fact while communicating. If it seems he is only listening to the facts so he can solve the problem, he’s simply defaulting to the “thinking” side. Guys, remember she may not want you to solve the problem; she may be more interested in communicating feelings to you. In that (frequent) case, engage the feeling side of your brain.

  4. Listen optimistically:

    In today’s world of next-day shipping and instant streaming, we’ve gotten used to getting what we want when we want it, which is roughly now to five seconds ago. But conversation is a leisurely activity that shouldn’t be rushed; it often needs time to unfold organically and wind its way around before concluding or even finding its footing. If you go into it expected to be bored or offended (thanks to your filters), you probably will be, and at the very least your listening will be impaired. Instead, give your partner the benefit of the doubt and listen expecting to hear something important or worthwhile, either to you or the speaker. Think of it is an opportunity not to be entertained, but to perform a service.

  5. Don’t miss what the body language is saying:

    A picture is worth a thousand words, right? Body language can be not only an opportunity to get the complete message (that may even contradict the words that are being said), it is a way for the listener to convey genuine concern and attention to what a speaker is saying. The eyes “” known as “the window to the soul” “” often speak volumes. Posture is a biggie; teachers can tell in one second which students are paying attention with a single glance around the room. Facial expression, proximity, and gestures can all factor in, as well.

  6. Mastering listening requires training:

    As auditory neuroscientist Seth Horowitz pointed out in a recent New York Times piece, what separates listening from hearing is attention. Our hearing sense is a primitive self-defense mechanism that is still working even while we’re asleep and that is present even in the simplest creatures. However, good listening is not innate but can be improved with practice. Horowitz recommended listening to unfamiliar music, the pitch and timbre of your dog’s barks, and your loved one’s voice.

  7. Find the motive:

    The goal of listening is to be able to empathize with the speaker, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see the world through another’s eyes. And like a detective investigating a murder, you have to first establish a motive for your speaker before you can have empathy for them. This is easier to do when the speaker is a person you know well, but when you don’t have any idea where a person is coming from, you’ll have to tactfully ask a few probing questions just to assemble enough information about his or her circumstances to be able to listen adroitly.

  8. Setting matters:

    As with a good home theater, the environment for communication can make as much of a difference as the tools being used (and often it is similarly overlooked). Putting yourself on equal footing with the speaker is important, like both of you standing or both of you sitting. Obviously anything you can do to make the scene quieter will enhance your ability to listen, as will any setting that allows you to make eye contact and demonstrate good body language, as we’ve mentioned.

  9. Quiet your mind:

    Since we’ve touched on the subject of quiet, there is a similar rule that is no less important to good listening: taming your thoughts. The phrase “monkey mind” has secured a spot in the vernacular as an accurate metaphor for the way our brains pop from one thought to the next, even when we’re supposed to be meditating or paying attention in class. However you overcome this distraction, whether by focused breathing or intense concentration, you’ll have to block those thoughts out to listen skillfully. Have you gotten the picture that artful listen involves work on your part yet?

  10. Don’t think ahead:

    “Be prepared” is a wise maxim, but thinking ahead has no place in the art of listening. Forecasting what a speaker is about to say robs a listener of his attention and handcuffs his ability to follow along in the moment. Mentally predicting what someone else is going to say also inherently involves making assumptions (and we all know what those make out of you and me). This rule is part of the previous one about keeping your thoughts from running rampant and is difficult to pull off, but if you can your listening skills will be the better for it.

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