How to Be a “Better” Listener

Friend and reader Catherine responded to last week’s post: What Kind of Listening Do We Owe Each Other? She said, “Now I’m waiting for the next email on how to be a better listener.”

I hope this is that email!

I want to start by defining “better listener.” That word “better” seems like it’s clear, but it hides a lot of confusion and assumptions in its folds.

When I think about being a “better listener,” what comes to mind is true openness, and a mindset of willingness to hear and to change one’s mind. The actor Alan Alda wrote a book a few years ago called If I Understood You, Would I Have this Look on My Face? (It’s great.) One of his primary assertions in the book is that if we enter into a conversation unwilling to have our mind changed, we’re not listening. That’s a hard truth, but I think he’s right.

When we listen in order to confirm what we already thought, or we suspend our curiosity in favor of completing our agenda, we’re not open. We’re not there to be changed. In short, we’re not listening.

Many years ago, I had a professional association with a person who really bugged me. Our personalities just clashed; it wasn’t anyone’s fault. After working with her for a while, I had to admit to myself that I was completely dismissing any ideas she had…simply because they came from her. The same suggestion from someone else would find me a more open and willing listener.

Realizing this has helped me be a more diligent listener, both to her and in other similar situations. And in answer to Catherine, this is how I practice being a more curious and open listener:

  1. I recognize the situation is one where I probably don’t want to listen. The topic, speaker, or circumstance clues me into my resistance. 
  2. I locate where the resistance is hanging out in my body. Usually it’s in my stomach, my face, and/or my shoulders. 
  3. I focus on the sensation of resistance: what does it feel like? What is it telling me?
  4. I name my default intention. “I want to get this over with, I want to make them admit they’re wrong, I just need to survive this conversation.”
  5. I shift from that default intention to a deliberate and productive intention: “I want to stay engaged, I will learn something new, I can bring calm and warmth to this situation.”
  6. I remind myself of my intention throughout the  experience. 
  7. Afterwards, I reflect briefly on how I think it went. Did I slip into my default intention? what impact did my intention seem to have, on me and on others?

Catherine, I hope that helps! Readers, I’d love to hear what steps you take to become a “better” listener, as well!

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