The Art of Proper Listening

It’s only human to want to be in the limelight, to sometimes wish to be the center of attention. We want people to see the world through our eyes. We want to feel important, to know that what happens to us is important to others and that our opinions are valued.

When you tell your friends about a recent incident at work, about the pain in your knee following a mountain trek or about the success of your child at school… what happens? They want to tell you about their incident at work, the pain in their knee and the success of their child! They want to talk about what’s on their mind.

When was the last time that someone really listened to a story you told them? They listened without interrupting and without anxiously waiting to tell their own story? We know that it feels good to be listened to, but unfortunately it doesn’t happen as often as we would like.

Well, guess what? You can make use of that knowledge and achieve a visible difference in your relationships. You can make others feel better. People will want to talk to you, be with you and do business with you.

All you have to do is listen.

In her book The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox Cabane shares a helpful anecdote that sheds further light on this idea of listening well.

According to Ms. Fox Cabane, Jennie Jerome—Winston Churchill's mother—had dinner with both Benjamin Disraeli and William Ewart Gladstone a week before an election in which they were competing for the position of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

When a journalist asked Jerome what her impression of the two men was, she responded:

"When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman."

Disraeli had spent the whole evening asking her questions and listening attentively to her responses. The conversation was steered towards her and, naturally, she talked. He was a person who made others feel intelligent, impressive and fascinating—we always feel good talking about ourselves.

Not surprisingly, Disraeli, the person who mastered the art of making other people feel important, won the election.

He was a good listener.

Many people claim to be good listeners. However, most of us fail to listen with the intention of fully understanding what is being said. Instead, we do it superficially, while we are almost always anxiously awaiting our turn to share what’s on our mind.

Proper listening requires concentration and focus, not only to process the meaning of words, but also to capture the message carried by gestures, tone, volume, pauses and even silences. A good listener will also be able to grasp the message carried by what isn’t said. It’s a very active process and, in order to really make an impact through listening, you have to be fully engaged.

According to a research article written by Diana I. Tamir and Jason P. Mitchell and published by the National Academy of Sciences, disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. “Humans so willingly self-disclose because doing so represents an event with intrinsic value, in the same way as with primary rewards such as food and sex.” The conclusion is that humans actually derive pleasure out of sharing personal opinions.

What to do with this knowledge, then?

There are dos and don’ts:

  • Be present while you are talking to someone. Don’t allow your mind to wander.
  • Concentrate on what the other person is saying. Ask. Probe. Show interest. Really be there, even if only for a few minutes (if you want to exit the conversation, go ahead and do it, but don’t be there partly).
  • Don’t look around the room. Look at his or her eyes, but don’t fix your stare; this makes people uncomfortable.
  • Convince yourself that you have something to learn from the other person. Seeing this attitude, the other person will open up.
  • Don’t look at your watch or your phone. Concentrate.
  • Do not freeze your thoughts on a good question that just occurred to you because the result is that you’ll stop listening. Just go with the flow.
  • Remember, it is their story. It is not your story. If you want to really connect with the other person, you must resist the urge to talk about yourself.
  • Practice this and you will be surprised with the results. Try. Do it for ten minutes at a time until it becomes second nature to you.

The way to family, social and business success depends on your ability to be liked and sought after. When you make people feel good, feel listened to—and I am not talking here about sweet-talk or the unnecessary use of flattery—they will want to be with you, trust you and work with you. Just talk more about them than about you.In her essay, The Art of Listening (excerpt here), Brenda Ueland writes: “The true listener is much more beloved, magnetic than the talker, and he is more effective and learns more and does more good. And so try listening. Listen to your wife, your husband, your father, your mother, your children, your friends; to those who love you and those who don't, to those who bore you, to your enemies. It will work a small miracle. And perhaps a great one."