How To Be A Really Really Good Listener
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that to be a good listener you should “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.” Okay. But exactly how do you do that? And how can you know that you are walking in another person’s shoes? How can you be sure that your perception is not mistaken or maybe it’s just your fantasy?
The operative term in the phrase—the other person’s shoes—is the word “other.” The goal is to get to know and understand the “other.” I emphasize the idea of the other to make the point that being a really really good listener requires that for the time it takes to listen well you have to place your own ego behind you. Not deny it. Not suppress it. But set it aside; bracket it, so to speak, so that your intention can actually bring the unique person of the other into full view.
Really good listening is a process that begins with the principle that the other person is not you. This may sound simplistic and it is if it’s interpreted superficially: different genders, different clothing, different names. Those are gross differences that matter but usually only minimally. To go deeper into who the other person is it’s important to recognize that they don’t operate from the same assumptions as you do: the most important assumptions being those that are unconscious. Even if you both come from the same social and economic status, the same ethnic and religious background, the same education and experience, that’s not enough to guarantee listening deeply, because there will always be points of divergence. When you’re not expecting these points of divergence differences they can branch off in unexpected and startling ways that can lead to confusion if not irritation and even rage.
How often has a friend, colleague, or spouse shocked you with something they said or did? Have you ever said something like “How could you have said that?” or “I can’t believe you did that!” or “Is that what you really think?” The more important but far less often asked question is—“What did I believe about you that led me to be so surprised?”
So, the first of the essentials of really good listening: be sure to act from the premise that the other person is not you. And this leads to the second essential of a really good listener—curiosity. You must sincerely want to know who the other person is. What makes them tick? What assumptions govern their lives, unconscious or otherwise?In many instances deep listening is not worth the time and focus it takes. But when it is it returns a treasure of understanding that enhances the familiarity and the closeness of your relationship.
The third essential: keep in mind that the other person’s point of view is as important to them as yours is to you. This perspective will prevent you from dismissing them out of hand when they express something not in alignment with what you think or believe and sometimes they may even contradict your position. If you do not grant them the right to be different from you and legitimately so, the onus falls on you for projecting your narcissism onto the other. The option is to allow your curiosity to give them the benefit of the doubt. This doesn’t mean you have to agree or even want to remain connected. But you won’t fall into the trap of characterizing them from your own point of view which means that you’re characterizing them as in some way wrong if they are not you. Why? Because you’re the only one in the moment that counts.
The fourth essential: listen for their non-conscious presuppositions/assumptionsbecause they form the context or the non-conscious frame for their point of view. This may seem daunting but it’s not. People express consciously. Without consciousness they’d be non-functional, perhaps in a coma, and unable to emote or communicate at all. At the same time we all express from the unconscious dimension of our minds. That’s unavoidable. And it’s in the unconscious where the presuppositions reside. They are expressed as slips of the tongue, inconsistencies, even contradictions.
For example, have you ever said “I didn‘t really mean that.” The truth is you did mean it but upon momentary reflection you want to make a correction. The fact is it was said. The passion with which you delivered it is a clue to the depth of your conviction and conviction, no matter how rationalized, has its roots in the unconscious. This applies in kind to the other person.
To listen really well you must be aware of and stay alert to both dimensions of the mind—conscious and unconscious. Short of that you are certain to be listening only partially and with equal certainty you will miss what’s right there in front of you.
To recap: begin with the fact that the other person is not you. Follow that with your sincere curiosity. Bracket your ego and remember that the other person’s point of view is as important to them as yours is to you.And listen for their non-conscious presuppositions/assumptions. The degree to which you can integrate and practice these listening strategies will not only make you a really really good listener but will open up other people to you in ways that will sometimes prove breathtaking.