We talk a lot. Everyday. All day. But we hardly listen. We want to be heard, but we do not want to hear.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
This is the famous “Golden Rule,” so-called because it finds mention in almost all religious traditions, in one form or another. We must treat others as we would like to be treated by others. When I first came across this dictum, I was taken aback by its concomitant depth and simplicity.
The kind of lives we lead are almost always shaped by the nature of interactions we have on a day-to-day basis, with our family, our friends, community members, neighbors, co-workers, and so on. Given the importance of others in our lives, we must pay special attention to how we interact, relate, associate, and identify with the people surrounding us. As you would like to be treated, striving to treat others is a great quality that could go a long way in improving the scale of your satisfaction with your life.
Crucial to human interactions is listening. Put, listening is an activity that involves paying attention to what the other person has to say. This includes being attentive to the speaker’s thoughts and experiences and attempting to understand (really understand) what they have to say. While a lot of us pretend to listen, few of us really listen. We talk a lot. Everyday. All-day. But we hardly listen. We want to be heard, but we do not want to hear.
Why Is Listening Important?
Being heard is a basic human need. When someone hears out our stories, we feel that our emotions and experiences are valid. Too often, seeking validation from other humans is considered a negative trait. However, come to think of it, most of us need a little bit of validation, now and then. If we have had a good experience, we love to share our happiness with those close to us. Similarly, we usually need someone to listen when we have had bad experiences. An effective communication aids in building stronger, more intimate bonds among humans, and listening and hearing others is central to this communication process. Thus, listening is indispensable to forming deep human connections. Whether it be with your children, parents, siblings, friends, or your other half, a good relationship is impossible without the foundations of trust and vulnerability that sharing experiences help create.
The importance of listening, however, is not limited to intimate bonds. Our lives are usually defined by the connections we make. In the professional world, this is known as networking. The kind of people we choose to create a network with, especially in the professional world, could potentially determine the course of our lives. When it comes to a career, making the right connections could expose us to many opportunities simply by making us more aware and presenting to us information that we could not possibly know if we lived in cocoons of our own. Again, central to making connections is the possession of a set of good listening skills. It does not matter whether you are conversing with your teacher, your boss, or your co-workers. Make sure you listen to what they have to say, and you will probably leave a great impression on them. Networking can be exhausting for people who prefer to socialize only within intimate circles. Here is a tip for you guys: All conversations matter, even the small and regular ones. Make them effective, and you might be spared the long hours of being stuck in a party you did not want to be at.
Finally, listening is a quality that all thinkers and leaders embody. Unless you listen to what the world has to offer, you are most likely blocking out a slew of innovative ideas and thoughts that might come in handy. An intellectual and a leader can only grow when they cultivate the habit of listening.
Given the world we live in, where each of us has the potential to impact other people’s lives in one way or another, we must try to build good relationships with people we come across. Listening constitutes nearly half of the efforts we could put in for the same.
Pseudo-listening Vs. Real Listening
Notwithstanding the centrality of being a good listener, most often we only pretend to listen, giving only twenty, perhaps fifty percent of our attention to the speaker, with our minds wandering elsewhere, hoping that our half-hearted listening is not too evident. Given the human tendency to self-sabotage with notable consistency and determination, it is not surprising that we do this. But really, we are not fooling anyone. While it is difficult to distinguish this “pseudo-listening” from real listening, most people figure it out.
Pseudo-listening could adversely affect our closest, most intimate bonds, as well as our rapport with acquaintances, work-place, or otherwise. In this section, we will discuss the various aspects that distinguish real listening from pseudo-listening.
- Eye-contact and gestures: Try as we much, what goes inside our heads, is usually made conspicuous via our facial expressions, bodily gestures, posture, and our eyes. An engaged and attentive listener, who attempts to understand what the speaker has to share, will generally make eye-contact with the latter, followed by genuine reactions and responses, evident on one’s face and bodily gesture. For example, if your best friend is sharing with you how her day was at work, you could react appropriately depending on the nature of the day. You could either frown at a bad day and display empathy, trying to understand to the best of your ability how she is feeling, or you could express pleasure on a good day. Either way, your face and eyes will usually do the talking before words actually come out of your mouth. On the other hand, if you are only pretending to listen, you will probably give out expressions that do not correspond to what is being shared. A bored poker face, wandering eyes, unreal fixed eye-contact, or your posture (like not facing them while they are speaking), unnecessarily nodding could make your friend feel that you are not really interested.
Pseudo-listeners usually feel that faking emotional reactions, eye-contact, or posture is a good way to fool the speaker. The reality is that your face and eyes give away much more than you would want them to. If they judge your disinterest, the speaker will most likely discontinue the conversation (even if they are not outright about it), and this will adversely affect your bond with them. Do this multiple times, and they will probably hesitate to share anything with you ever again, given that you made them feel that their experiences had no significance for you.
- Appropriate verbal gestures/ feedback: While it is not essential to respond verbally to everything the speaker has to say, real listening involves asking relevant questions or paraphrasing what the speaker said to encourage them to feel secure enough to share more of what they have to say. How secure the speaker feels in the conversation depends on how they perceive and interpret the listener’s verbal and non-verbal signals. If the speaker feels that the listener is attentive, compassionate, and interested in what they have to say, they will be encouraged to speak freely.
Pseudo-listening, on the other hand (the “hmm, acha, theek hai” method), will not only discourage speakers from sharing anything further, but it will also likely hurt their feelings and make them feel worthless at that moment. Now, we would not want the important people in our lives to feel that way, would we? Or let me put it another way: as someone who wants to be heard, we would not like to be treated like that, would be? As opposed to active listening, pseudo listening is a distracting form of listening, in which your mind is not in the conversation. Hence, your verbal response could be mismatched vis-a-vis what the speaker intended to convey.
Asking appropriate questions and giving feedback is essential in the workplace and educational setting as well. If you have been assigned a task, but you have not been listening properly, there is no way you can ask relevant questions or contribute with innovative ideas. Here, pseudo-listener will come across as a highly unprofessional individual.
- Empathic listening vs. Listening to offer advice: We all engage in pseudo-listening at some point in our lives. However, some of us are aware of the impact this might have on our relationships, and therefore, we attempt to trick ourselves and the person we are conversing with. Very often, when our dear ones share their grievances with us, we start to believe that we can get away with listening to them as soon as we solve their problems. This form of “problem-solving” attitude is highly detrimental to both the speaker and to your bond with them. The chances are that after having shut them off with your quick problem-solving and advice-giving skills, you will end up feeling good-to-go to get back to your life, but the speaker might be left feeling empty and frustrated.
Just remember: everyone who shares their experiences with you asks for an empathic ear, not unsolicited advice. They want to be heard and their emotions and feelings to be understood. Before you go on a problem-solving spree, pause and ask yourself how you would feel in their position. You might or might not relate fully to what they have to say, but your response will show that you tried. The effort of empathizing is enough to make someone feel that they are understood and that their experience is part of shared humanity.
- The self-centered listener: It often happens in a conversation that the speaker’s ideas and words remind us of our own experiences. A healthy conversation will generally involve active listeners to create an equal space to exchange experiences, ideas, and thoughts. However, if one of the listeners is too self-centered, they might make all conversations about themselves. This is not just symbolic of poor-listening skills but also of a narcissistic personality. This is especially true if the speaker is sharing something significant to them. The listener fails to understand the gravity of what the former is saying or how it affects them. In such situations, a self-centered listener will either interrupt the speaker to share their own experiences or, without fully paying attention to what the speaker said, rambling about how they had a similar experience. In reality, how they respond could be remotely related to what the speaker wanted to convey, making the latter feel that the other person was not really listening.
Again, the difference between real and pseudo here lurks in the area of how the listener responds. Real listening will involve patience on the part of the listener, let the speaker finish what they set out to say, and comprehend the meanings fully they meant to convey, and make an effort to understand how they feel about the subject hand. On the other hand, Pseudo-listening will involve half-hearted attention and a preoccupation with one’s own thoughts, and therefore, a completely inappropriate response.
Why Do We Engage In Pseudo-listening?
There is never enough time! Right?
Our lives are perpetually full. We have to manage work, sleep, exercise, good meals, and Netflix. Honestly saying, that is a lot to handle (no sarcasm intended). However, we fail to understand that there are a few things that make us happy in a way that lasts, and having a real human connection is one of those things. Connections depend, among other things, on hearing and being heard. Any relationship demands constant effort. However, too often, we find ourselves cheating our ways out of the process, especially when we get comfortable. A very relatable example is you scrolling through Instagram while talking on the phone. It is simply not fair. In a workplace setting, too, forced listening will hamper your professional relationships.
There could be many other kinds of reasons for pseudo-listening, and multi-tasking is only one of them. Multi-tasking, of course, has a lot to do with not being fully present at the moment with the other party. It causes distraction and reflects a bored, disinterested attitude.
One cause of this could be the fact that you might not be enjoying the conversation and hence, you keep zoning out, even if you try to listen.
It is also possible that you feel that others have nothing to offer to you, that you are the best and what they are saying is almost always stupid and worthless. Such an idea in itself is symbolic of a narcissist and a narrow-minded individual who does not believe that s/he is teachable or is open to suggestions. Inevitably, a narrow-minded person’s growth stagnates after a certain point.
Sometimes, people let their minds wander. We start building responses and stories in our own head instead of focusing on what is being said. All of us have been guilty of this particular behavior, at some point or another. It also happens to be perhaps, the most common cause of pseudo-listening.
Filtering is another cause of pseudo-listening. This is when we pay only partial attention and listen to only what interests us. This could lead to self-centered listening.
Sometimes, we are not really interested in what the others have to say. We listen simply because it is an appreciated social-convention and/or because we do not want to hurt other people. However, our disinterest often seeps in through our expressions and responses, making it clear that we were only engaging in pseudo-listening.
In classroom contexts, or when engaging in an “informational” form of listening, when we listen to gather information, most of us tend to zone out pretty quickly. This has a lot to do with our concentration span and leads to insincerity in listening.
As you read this, it is highly likely that you relate to at least one of these reasons. Despair not!
It is possible to work on your listening skills and become a better parent, sibling, co-worker, employer, employee, friend, spouse, and generally, a better human being. In the next section, we will discuss some of how you can improve your listening skills.
How Can I Become A Better Listener?
Real listening demands conscious effort. Unless you are enjoying the conversation or listening to a specific objective, you will likely let your mind wander. The good thing is that developing listening skills means working concomitantly on several other useful aspects of your personality.
First and foremost, of such aspects is being self-aware. The moment you catch yourself engaging in pseudo-listening, stop and ask yourself why. Is it boring? Or have you just not paying enough attention? Maybe your mind is too preoccupied with your to-do list. Maybe you are beginning to think of an unrelated experience that the speaker reminded you of. Do you feel that the speaker is saying something stupid and worthless? Has the speaker been ranting unnecessarily for a very long time?
Once you figure out the cause of your insincerity, you can decide whether you are right or wrong and choose to respond accordingly. This brings us to the next step in becoming a better listener. Being honest with yourself and with others. This is especially crucial in close relationships. If you are feeling burdened, or have a lot on your mind, be honest about it. It might get awkward for a second, but you can always tell them that you do not feel that great and would not mind listening at some point later in the day.
In the case of a work-place setting, however, you would probably find yourself getting bored. In that scenario, you must make a conscious effort to be patient and take a genuine interest in what is being said. This is tough. However, it is doable. If you feel that an idea is not great, respectfully convey what you think and present your own ideas. Once you listen to others, they will likely respond similarly.
Practicing mindfulness is crucial to good listening. Mindfulness essentially means being present. When you are fully present in the moment, both mentally and physically, your attention and concentration increase dramatically. The moment you find your mind wandering, or have the urge to speak about yourself before other finish, pause and remind yourself to be patient and bring your mind back to the present.
Here is a wonderful quotation from a story by the renowned Russian author and philosopher, Leo Tolstoy, and which is quite relevant to our subject and sums up the idea:
“Remember then: there is only one time that is important- Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with anyone else: and the most important affair is to do him good because for that purpose alone was a man sent into this life!”
Also read What Is Passive Listening?