A lesson in listening

There are so many constant noises and distractions in modern life, that it can make a profound effect on our ability to listen.

This becomes apparent when you get away from city life and take a hike in the rural countryside. When you can pick out the simple sounds of birdsong, or a jet plane following its flight path tens of thousands of feet above, you will recognise that everyday life is full of endless noise.

Getting some quiet time on the Ridgeway National Trail

A television on in the background when you’re not really watching it. The hum of the fridge freezer. Your neighbour playing loud music at 2am. The buzzing and beeping of your smartphone as yet another notification pops up on the screen.

We’re so used to it, that it becomes hard to remember what it is like to not have interruptions. In fact, we’re basically conditioned to have distractions. Think of advertisements popping up in the middle of a YouTube video, or a toddler begging for a snack in the middle of a work conference call. Whatever it is, it takes away from our ability to stay focused. And to listen, we need focus.

But why do we need to improve our listening skills? Simply put, we’re all a bit shit at it.

Sure, we listen – to things that grab our attention the most, or people who shout the loudest. We can all recount something inflammatory that Piers Morgan might have said, or something tone deaf from the mouth of Donald Trump, but can we honestly say that we give our full attention to our friend, or acquaintance in need?

“Acts of kindness don’t just make other people feel good, they increase our own happiness too. Whether it’s our time, money or attention, research shows that giving to others causes our brain to release more of the feel-good chemical, dopamine.” (Becky Dickinson, Vital Living – Quiet)

I’ve started trying to practice my listening skills, but it certainly doesn’t come naturally to me. Like most people, I have been conditioned to accept distractions in all parts of my life, and I also have the characteristics that are associated with being an introvert, and even more difficult, autism.

Direct eye contact makes me feel awkward, and I may find myself doodling whilst on a phone call, or picking out typos on a poster when I’m sat with a friend in a cafe. All distractions.

I have delayed responses, as it takes me longer to process information in my mind when it is spoken out loud. My words are often as blunt as the knife in my kitchen that I’ve never sharpened (and may have also used to hack apart a tin of beans). Not that I intend to be that way; it’s just the way I am wired.

But that’s why I am learning. I think it will make for more effective relationships with the different people in my life – whether through work or personally – but it will also help me become a better communicator. It has the bonus effect of taking me out of my own head, realising that other people are struggling with their own thoughts and feelings.

OK, so ignoring physical distractions in order to listen better requires practice. It is possible to achieve.

It means finding a quiet space, using open body language, being conscious of not fidgeting, and making better choices. By that I mean, not scheduling meetings too closely together, making sure you’re not about to wet yourself before you start a meaningful conversation, and picking somewhere sensible to have a chat (a car journey in rush hour, or a packed train service probably aren’t your best bets here).

However, I was reminded that there are other forms of distractions when completing my assessments for my counselling skills diploma. And these other forms of distractions are also blocks for listening and learning. The more I think about these, the more I realise that I have been passively letting these blocks affect my listening skills, and therefore, my relationships.

Some of the suggested blocks to listening outlined by The Skills Network include:

  • Daydreaming (right now, I spend a lot of time trying to remember the taste of a flat white from an independent coffee shop)
  • Filtering information – listening for some things and ignoring others (this is something I might do if I’m in a good mood and someone wants to tell me all of their problems)
  • Making mental judgements about what is being said; more on this below
  • Being distracted by noise and interruptions (OMG is that a squirrel?)
  • Lack of interest in what is being said (tell me about your passion for the solar system, and I’m your gal – I’ve zoned out if you’re telling me about most reality TV)
  • Thinking about your own problems (mine is commonly: how the fuck am I going to achieve everything I want to do this week?)
  • Watching the time (uh, is it tea o’clock yet? Trick question brain; it’s always time for tea)
  • ‘Mind reading’ – thinking that you ‘know’ what is being said without listening (I sometimes do this if I’ve had a similar conversation with that person before, and miss points that may have changed)
As I said, coffee.

I have news for you. Whatever you’ve shared with someone recently, there is a good chance that one or more of these blocks to listening has impacted the quality of your conversation. Perhaps a harsh reality of how we have let all of these forms of distractions permeate our lives.

Therefore we need to try to do more than just show up and lend an ear, we have a whole bunch of other things to either learn, or unlearn. Some are habits that we will have picked up over time – like doodling or idly hunting for squirrels, and some will be skills we have never even considered to be important.

For example, suspending your values and beliefs doesn’t seem like natural behaviour (you’ll probably be thinking, “Hey! But that’s what makes me, me!”) yet by putting aside your own perspectives and opinions for the benefit of a “helping” conversation when someone is in need, it can be beneficial.

This is because you will have more open and friendly body language, which can make someone feel more comfortable with you. And your mind will be free of conflicting thoughts and thinking that the person you are speaking to is a total idiot, and “why don’t they just do it like me?”.

We’re all different. Unique. Therefore we all share different opinions and standards. Whilst we may hold moral rights and wrongs, these are not the same for every person. Interpreting your way as “the right way”, or as a fact, can hinder your relationships.

For the purpose of more meaningful friendships, marriages, or any personal/professional relationship, it pays to put yourself in the shoes of the person you are speaking to. Sometimes, empathy is a more desirable reaction than sympathy.

Why? If someone is telling you that they’ve been diagnosed with depression, or they have been having anxious thoughts (right now, that’s a lot of us!), it’s unlikely that the most helpful feedback will be “Oh yes, when that happened to me I…” or, “I know what you mean. I’ve been feeling…”. Like yes, I’m sure you can absolutely relate to what they have said.

BUT you’ve basically said, “that was an interesting anecdotal introduction to a conversation which is now all about me, me, ME!”. Soz pal, the moment is gone.

Despite what I’ve said here, I’m sure you haven’t been a shitty friend, because most of us aren’t blessed with amazing listening skills anyway. However, I do believe that I – and you – have the potential to improve these skills to reap the rewards, which ultimately come down to the feel-good chemical dopamine.

The irony isn’t lost on me. It seems that having a deep conversation with someone about their issues and troubling thoughts can make you happier, or at the very least, more fulfilled.

Let’s end with this food for thought:

We can re-purpose the adage ‘treat others the way you want to be treated’ as a reminder to practice listening skills the next time they’re needed.

Listen to others the way you want to be listened to.