Listen Rigorously.

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe, Vincent van Gogh (1889)

It can be stated, with practically no qualification, that people in general do not know how to listen. They have ears that hear very well, but seldom have they acquired the necessary aural skills which would allow those ears to be used effectively for what is called listening.

Harvard Business Review, 1957

If a quote from 1957 is relevant today, you can assume it is timeless.

People will be talking about bad listeners in 2057.

Everyone likes a good listener, so this is an opportunity for you and me.

Talking started as my biological default and high school superlative — “Most Talkative.” Gradually, through asking The Most Important Question (Why?), my conversations have become more thoughtful and purposeful.

I started asking myself: Why am I talking? Why is he or she talking? Why are we talking to each other?

As I answered these questions, I began listening.

This happens to many of us: We are ashamed of some weakness we had growing up, we try to make up for it later, and we turn it into a strength.

The Problems

The most basic type of listening is: You say something and I incorporate what you say into my next sentence.

Yet, somehow, Bad Listeners fail to meet this most basic of expectations. Recently, I have bumped into two problems enough times to write an essay about it.

  1. Someone simply missing the most important part of a conversation
  2. People following nonconscious scripts, both in speaking and listening (explained below)
The Realizations
  1. People often have different goals for a conversation.
  2. Many people project their own experiences (autobiographies) onto other people.
  3. Distractions and energy are important considerations.

I had to learn for myself what Stephen Covey teaches in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

“Seek first to understand” involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.

Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Why Are We Talking?

Conversations are ostensibly about communicating information. Conversations are also an exchange of emotions. As Covey says, sometimes words can even get in the way of a conversation!

But, words are important.

So, we face a paradox: Words can be both critical and unimportant. It depends on the goal, purpose, and context of the conversation.

Is it, “Hi, who cares what we are talking about because I mainly just want to spend quality time with you,” or is it, “Yes, tell me about your weekend later. I need these four mistakes in the memo fixed by 5:00 pm”?

The elephant in the room of communication is power. If you have all the power, you rarely need to listen to anyone. People need to listen to you.

In many situations, someone has more power than someone else, so getting him to do something is more important than understanding his emotions.

There are wonderful, time-saving benefits to power. For example, you can fire Bad Listeners.

Although this is true, in most cases power is less than absolute. It is softer and more transient than it has ever been, because power has different forms. For instance, even if you have direct power over your employees, they can quit.

In personal relationships, your partner can leave you and your friends can stop hanging out with you.

So, even if you have more power in the relationship, when you consistently fail to listen and understand the other person, that power may be short-lived.

Obviously, when you initiate a conversation, you know why. It is less clear when someone starts a conversation with you. Zooming out for a second to ask Why are we talking? or What does this person really want? is surprisingly useful.

As I have become more cognizant of these things, in personal relationships, I have started to focus less on the words, and more on what the person is really trying to say, the quality time, and bonding. When something needs to get accomplished at work, the focus has become more on efficacy.

What’s Your Favorite Color? Blu…Red!? Yeah, That’s What I Was Going to Say

An example of a pre-programmed script is: Nike, Just…

You can finish that sentence without thinking about it (You…Just Do It). People naturally look for patterns. “Oh, I have heard this one before. I can tune out.”

This feature can be disastrous to communication. You have seen a version of the following situation.

Most of the time, when Person A criticizes Trump, people assume Person A is a Democrat and when Person B criticizes Biden, it is assumed Person B is a Republican. The reason this happens is that it is often correct. However, just because it is correct regularly, does not mean that you should tune out the criticism.

We get conditioned to these scripts and substantive conversation disappears. We hate it when someone tries to finish our sentence for us when he is wrong. So, why would we do this to other people?

A low-stakes example of this is Person A asking, “Have you been to such and such restaurant?”

Person B: Yes

Person A then goes on to describe the restaurant as if Person B said, “No.”

A good conversationalist may have planned on describing the restaurant’s aesthetic, but after hearing that Person B had already been, he could skip the visual description, and focus on his personal experience and opinions.

Distractions & Energy

If you are staring at a screen while talking to someone over 30, he thinks you are being rude. While you may not intend to be rude, the subconscious is talented because it knows we cannot pay attention to two things at once.

To be fair, we think faster than we talk.

Once someone says something and I get it, my attention tends to drift because I need to prepare for my response. Everyone absorbs information at different rates, so we are bound to get distracted if information is coming in too fast or too slowly.

Worse, there are more distractions than there have ever been. And that’s not one of those subjective nostalgic comments like, “Politicians were more honest when I was a kid.” There really are more things competing for your attention than ever.

My friend Samir has a wonderful goal and solution for this problem: Be a filter, not a sponge. The key to being a good listener is not to remember everything, but to figure out what is important. The more you practice this, the better you will get.

Energy is self-evident. I know myself and I lose 50 IQ points between 3:00pm – 5:00pm daily. I try to schedule important conversations around my energy levels, so I schedule all important meetings in the morning or at night, when my brain is working.

Is It Worth The Time Commitment?

By now, you can tell the reason these problems exist is because listening is work.

As mentioned above, one surprisingly common problem is people missing important parts of a conversation. If this happens too many times, you simply have to minimize contact with them or cut them out completely.

“Seek First to Understand” is a time commitment. We will waste a lot of our lives if we try to do this with everyone.

A useful question is: Am I going to have a long-term or short-term relationship with this person?

If you are going to have a lot of conversations with someone, then the upfront time cost is an investment. Otherwise, it is probably not worth it. You will not see it written that bluntly in How to Win Friends and Influence People.

You don’t want to be on the phone with an anonymous Comcast customer service rep and the conversation to turn into her telling you about her childhood trauma.

You: Uh, I was kind of hoping you could just help me get my internet fixed.

What To Do
  • Pay attention. The most important part of listening is to genuinely care what the other person is saying.
  • Save your energy for people you can and will focus on.
  • Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Said differently, don’t put your autobiography onto someone else.
  • Be slow to conclusions. Be slow to evaluate. Be slow to advise.
  • After a conversation, write down what you disagreed with. Our brains are good at dismissing things we disagree with, so this little habit helps us avoid confirmation bias.
  • Re-read 7 Habits & How to Win Friends every 3-10 years.
See also: