How to Become a Better Listener

2020 has brought us a lot to contend with and make sense of. These events have carved dividing lines and created deep levels of turmoil. It’s left most of us feeling disenfranchised in some way. 

One pattern throughout it all is our collectively poor listening skills. Listening to one another doesn’t have to mean you completely change your mind, but it does acknowledge that there is always a little more to the story than the one we are holding and that the perspectives of others deserve respect as much as ours. 

Deep, active listening is an art. It takes time and self-awareness to get good at listening. When we listen well, it creates a beautiful masterpiece of connection, empathy, compassion, and love. Our world needs a lot more of all those things! 

Active listening is at the core of what I do as a coach and I think the secrets of listening are too valuable not to share. When we feel heard, something powerful takes place in us. It’s like a breath of fresh air that invigorates our soul and puts us in a whole new headspace. Listening well expresses empathy and compassion. We connect to their humanity, and they to ours. It creates community and unifies us instead of divides. 

Many things get in the way of listening well. I won’t hit them all here. I will offer a few thoughts for your consideration from the viewpoint of a coach. 

Three Levels of Listening

Level One – The focus is on us. Our attention tends to be on what their words mean to us and what we will get out of it. It leaves people out in the proverbial cold from our attention and care and keeps us separated. 

Level Two – The attention and focus are on the person we are listening to. At this level, we hear what a person does and does not say. We notice when there is more to be said, we notice facial expression, tone, and body language. You hear the values they hold dear. You process and reflect to gain clarity. You don’t judge anything. It just is. This level of listening forces us to ask questions like: What if we put aside our personal ideas, assumptions, fears, and self-focus long enough to really listen to someone? What if listening to someone could mean we create an ally, a friend or a stronger community? What if listening well could create beautiful art? 

Level Three – This level of listening involves everything from level two with the addition of the full use of our intuition. We do this all while giving up our need to be right. We are fully listening and hearing the person, processing it, responding back, and noticing how our response lands, then adjusting accordingly. We notice and feel their energy, pain and joy. In coaching, we call this “dancing in the moment.” 

See Also

Powerful coaching happens at levels two and three. We can apply this level of listening outside of coaching by opening ourselves up to humbly and compassionately listen to the stories of others and while setting aside our own needs to be right in the moment for greater human connection. At this level, we’re asking: What if listening brought unity where unity couldn’t have existed before? What if compassionate, engaged listening led to a collaboration to find powerful solutions to a problem in which both parties could benefit instead of just one? 

I think if we could apply the same listening techniques coaches use to the crucial conversations we have in our daily lives we may be able to bridge some divides. Whether we use these techniques in conversations around current events, in workplace conflicts, or familial relationships, listening better offers us the opportunity to see powerful, positive change happen. So how exactly do we apply the above and listen better? 

Three Listening Tips

  1. Be aware of your preoccupations and anxieties. Sometimes when we experience another’s story, our own concerns or opposite viewpoints are pricked or challenged, and they overtake us. This prevents us from listening well because we can’t hear the other over those concerns. It’s OK that we don’t know or understand everything. It’s OK to have our own ideas. The key is being open to learning more. Instead of withdrawing or fighting when you feel challenged, notice and acknowledge how you are feeling, then allow yourself to set it down just for a while so you can turn your attention back to the other person. Later, take time to explore the anxieties and triggers that came up. Where do they come from? Do you need more information? Have your boundaries been trampled? Have your values been challenged? Is there an area where you don’t feel heard? What are you afraid of losing? Ask respectful, open-ended, curious questions of the speaker so you can understand better. Consider James 1:19 – Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. 
  2. Remember that not everything is black and white. Another way our own preoccupations get in the way of listening is simplistic thinking and either/or thinking. Sometimes there are more complex variables at play. When we minimize them, we ignore important aspects of an issue and risk dismissing the experiences of another human person.  Sometimes we want to fit everything into either/or categories. Sometimes, more often than not, life is both/and. Life has a lot of gray. Racism is always wrong. But, wanting to keep people safe from illness and wanting to pay your bills is a both/and scenario where both concerns are valid. Work to hear both. Don’t dismiss someone because their experience or ideas don’t fit your preferred narrative or belief system. You can listen to a person, expand your understanding, and even modify your perspectives as needed and still walk away disagreeing on something. Listening means you recognize there are variables outside your own experiences that matter and are valuable. Plus, you may find there is a whole new side to consider that you didn’t know before. The experiences of people within a group can vary greatly and are all valid in their own right.
  3. Know when to counter-argue and when to let it go. Add your thoughts to the conversation when the other person indicates they have been heard. Introduce your thoughts respectfully, keeping in mind that connection and quality communication is the goal for you both. Save your thoughts for another day when they won’t add value in the moment.

As a lover of Jesus, I want to be known for genuinely loving people first, not for dismissing people in favor of my own opinions or needs. Listening can bring us together and help us to offer bit more empathy, compassion, and healing to each human story we engage with. Listening well makes us better spouses, parents, friends, co-workers, and leaders. Maybe we won’t always see eye-to-eye, and that’s OK but, hopefully, if we listen a little more, we can bring some more of the hope so needed into our world.

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