When I was a freshman in college, just beginning my Communication Theory studies, one of my professors started a class by saying, “Listening is not the same as hearing.” These words changed my life. While I don’t have a corner on the market of great listening skills, my trajectory as someone who desires to be a good listener was reoriented in that college classroom.
When a car alarm interrupts our sleep or a garbage truck passes by, this is passive hearing. We recognize the sound is there, but we are not engaged with it. It’s the lowest level of hearing. Too often, our conversations with others can also be passive. Passive listening is often a gateway to jumping to premature conclusions and offering ignorant and prescriptive advice. It can leave a person feeling like they were not understood or worse, like they are a project to be fixed.
Dynamic listening, on the other hand, requires engagement. It doesn’t happen by accident. It is a constant learning and refining process. It is active, attentive, and altruistic. When it’s done well, dynamic listening is a gift that breathes life and energy into the other person.
In 1957, psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson wrote a famous and influential book called, “Active Listening.” In their definition, Active Listening is a technique to bring about positive change in a counseling client. I am using the term active not simply as a means to the end of positive change, but rather as a call to be present and create a space that simply communicates, “I hear you.”
Active listening requires us to ask powerful questions. Powerful questions are open-ended and invite another person to process out loud, tease possible solutions, deep-dive into underlying issues, and surface dormant thoughts and feelings.
As a Guide for Paraclete, my main job is to listen and ask POWERFUL questions. I have the privilege of listening to humans all day long. I’m always amazed at the end of a 30 or 45-minute connection when someone says to me, “Thank you for listening to me today and giving me good advice” when, in fact, I didn’t give them any advice at all. I simply listened and asked questions that helped them surface potential solutions on their own.
Our tone of voice, feedback, nods, smiles, empathetic laughter, shared tears, asking for clarity, sighs, grunts, and other signals may also indicate we are actively listening.
In order for me to listen attentively, I need to quiet the noises in my own head and the noises that surround me and distract me. If I know I am going into a conversation with someone, I prepare beforehand as best I can. This includes cleaning the space around me of clutter and putting away my computer and phone. It often means planning for a downtime that is free of distractions and busyness for 15 or so minutes prior to a conversation. It might include meditation beforehand.
Closely observing other people’s non-verbal communication is part of an attentive listening skillset that can be immensely helpful in seeking to understand others. Are they talking fast? Are they talking slowly and laboring over their word choices? These cues may be a window into their anxiety or fear. Attentive listeners are aware of things like pause, pitch, pace, and punch while the other is speaking as these might be potential vocal cues to how the other is feeling and processing.
Attentive listening requires taking mental (or sometimes written) notes about someone’s story and the way they speak about the vignettes of their lives. Careful observation of the details often surfaces reoccurring patterns and themes that may prove helpful in understanding the other person.
Altruistic (selfless) listening gives without expecting anything in return. Altruistic listening takes humility. We must be able to say, “I am not the most important person in this conversation at this time.”
Fostering a habit of altruistically listening to another human being requires self-care and an awareness of what we may be projecting. When we as listeners are fidgety, distracted, irritated,tired, hungry, disapproving, judgmental, and/or non-interested, those things speak loudly. Our non-verbal communication is more powerful and more believable than our verbal communication.
We must do everything in our power (resting, eating, quieting) to prepare ourselves to listen. When we are in the moment, we must practice silencing the distractions that enter our heads(our desire to interrupt, crafting our next sentence while someone is speaking). We must be aware of and work to dispose of the filters we have in our own minds that lead to judgment and prescriptive fix-its.
I like to tell my story. But, it’s not the time to tell it when I’m listening. When I’m listening, the other person has the microphone. Good listeners fight the urge to interrupt, one-up, or tell a similar story that happened to them.
When space is created for others to talk and tell their story, there is potential for beautiful things to transpire such as human connectivity, affirmation, validation, relief, peace, new direction, ideas, confidence, calming, perspective, and healing.