In today’s polarized, noisy, and judgmental world, we need to talk less and listen more. This is true in both our professional and personal lives. Yet, it’s a modern-day miracle that any of us can do so. Research shows that when it comes to listening, the odds are stacked against us.
Here are some common listening blockers:
Self-Awareness: Most people think they’re above-average listeners. Read that sentence again. In one study, among managers rated as terrible listeners, 94% evaluated themselves as good, or very good, listeners. Yikes!
Self-Love: Our brain’s ‘reward system’ lights up when we talk about ourselves (just like it does with sex, cocaine, and chocolate). When presented with the option of talking about themselves or others, people will even forgo financial rewards just to talk about themselves.
Twitter Brain: It has become hard for people to stay focused for long. This is partly due to being embedded in a web of technology designed to suck up our attention.
Speech-Thought Differential: Our brains process information three times faster than most people speak, so our minds naturally wander off.
Familiarity: We get lazy with people we know best. Research shows that strangers often do a better job listening to our loved ones than we do.
Fear: Studies show that our brain registers threatening ideas as mortal dangers. It’s hard to listen to someone when your brain thinks you’re about to become lunch.
So, what are we to do?
First, appreciate that listening is a complex activity that requires your full attention. We need to decode the lingual (what people are saying,) the gestural (the nonverbal), and the tonal (how people say what they say).
Second, get into the right mindset. A proper listening mindset is captured by the ancient Chinese character for listening 聽 ( pronounced “ting” ). The character is composed of different elements: ears, eyes, heart, king, wholeness, and the number 1. Listening well, then, involves listening with our ears (for information and tone), our eyes (for nonverbals), our heart (for emotions), and treating others like royalty by giving them our undivided attention.
At NextArrow, to get into the right mindset, we came up with the ZIP IT method: Zoom In Person Is Talking. Saying "Zip it" to ourselves, allows us to (re)direct our attention to the person speaking. This method is especially useful for difficult and challenging conversations.
Third, balance active and passive listening. Some of the best listeners I know are therapists and hostage negotiators. Their method lies in being present, restating what they heard, labeling feelings, and checking for alignment.
Gary Noesner, former Chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, says, “It’s only when you attend to someone in a meaningful way [and] you demonstrate that you’re listening, that you earn credibility, trust, and influence.”
Finally, to listen well, practice. Do it with your co-workers, clients, partners, kids, and pets. Challenge yourself to demonstrate you’re listening at least three times a day.
In 2022, let’s all try to ZIP IT and listen a little more. Our workplaces and homes might just become a little less polarized, noisy, and judgemental.
To learn more about communication skills, check out our Courageous Conversations workshop.