Sometimes it seems like absolutely nobody really knows how to listen. I suppose it’s odd that I’m bringing this up since listening is one of the reasons that I have a job, but it just seems like the world would be a much more harmonious place if people were more aware of how often they ‘hear’ what others are saying without really ‘listening.’ Exploring why this happens might help us to identify and change our behavior. The good news is, it is actually very understandable.
First, we are anticipation machines – that is how we function. So, most of the time, when we are listening to someone speak, we are unconsciously anticipating what they are going to say, and, consequently, comparing it to other similar things that we have heard. This is so that we can understand and relate. While the motive is good, too often the models in our minds that we use as file folders for what we see and hear are bigger, stronger and louder than the content that we are supposed to be listening to. When that happens our brain is using its filtering system, and we only actually end up hearing what we expect to hear.
The human mind understands things through comparison – metaphors and similes. On one hand, that can be liberating as it allows us to get a handle on things that we know very little about, things of which we have no direct experience. But on the other hand, it can also make actual two-way communication rather difficult.
Have you noticed that often when you describe how you are feeling or telling someone about a situation that you just experienced, the other person often replies with something along the lines of, “That’s just like so and so,” or “that happened to me…” or “ I know what you mean. I…” Have you paid close attention to your own thoughts and feelings when that is the response? Do you feel heard and understood? Or do you feel derailed? Do you willingly change the topic of the conversation to what the other person is talking about? Or do you steer it back to what you were trying to communicate? Or perhaps a combination – allowing them to go on for a while and then trying to restate your experience? Maybe you give up. Maybe you are relieved to not have to talk about yourself anymore. As you can expect, your reaction likely depends on a number of factors, not the least of which can include your relationship with the person and/or the topic of conversation.
The next time you are listening to someone speak, try to be aware of your own tendency to anticipate what they are about to say or to interpret it by way of comparison with your own experience, or to get distracted in framing your own response. You might be inspired to try something different and simply ask an open-ended question such as, “what was that like?” or “tell me more about . . .” Or ‘”Really? What happened next?”
Get curious about the other person’s experience, and at least make the attempt to help them elaborate what they are trying to say to you. Don’t grill them, of course, but try being open. It may make talking with others – even ”small talk” much more interesting…for both parties involved.