Why Is It So Hard To Listen?

When I became involved with ‘knowledge management’ in a large science and technology organisation (over 10,000 staff), the subtle role of conversations became apparent. Sometimes even little asides or passing comments could lead to unexpected and interesting connections and occasionally even opportunities.

Persuing this topic further, it’s helpful to distinguish between discussions and dialogue (see table above). Most conversations are discussions as having a dialogue is actually quite hard (perhaps because we’ve all been educated that way?).

There is plenty of advice on how to promote dialogue between people but a lot of it seems to me to be rather theoretical and tricky to implement in practice. In fact a good test is whether the person promoting the advice actually does what he/she recommends, personally (from meetings and conferences) I had quite a few negative experiences! I don’t think it was deliberate, it’s just that true dialogue is really hard and takes work, a discussion is far easier (see again table above).

An important component of illuminating conversations is the art of (deeply) listening.

In this context, I came across this quote from documentary filmmaker Valarie Kaur:

“Deep listening is an act of surrender. We risk being changed by what we hear.

When I really want to hear another person’s story, I try to leave my preconceptions at the door and draw close to their telling. I am always partially listening to the thoughts in my own head when others are speaking, so I consciously quiet my thoughts and begin to listen with my senses.

Empathy is cognitive and emotional—to inhabit another person’s view of the world is to feel the world with them. But I also know that it’s okay if I don’t feel very much for them at all. I just need to feel safe enough to stay curious.

The most critical part of listening is asking what is at stake for the other person. I try to understand what matters to them, not what I think matters. Sometimes I start to lose myself in their story. As soon as I notice feeling unmoored, I try to pull myself back into my body, like returning home. As Hannah Arendt says, ‘One trains one’s imagination to go visiting.’ When the story is done, we must return to our skin, our own worldview, and notice how we have been changed by our visit.”

I found the first sentence quite powerful:

“Deep listening is an act of surrender. We risk being changed by what we hear.”

It made me realise that there is an emotional component involved, it’s not a strictly rational process. The power of the conversation is that it might change you, hopefully for better but also possibly for worse, and that is something you just have to live with. There is no certainty. From the last line of the quote:

“When the story is done, we must return to our skin, our own worldview, and notice how we have been changed by our visit.”

So after a dialogue, to benefit you need to be quite self-aware and that’s only something you can do yourself (through reflection etc). It’s a complicated but potentially highly rewarding process and experience.

Going back to listening, here are some additional aspects to think about (quoted from here):

a) We keep latching onto factual details: we go on about times, places, external movements – not realising that things become interesting only when people say what they feel about what happened, not merely what happened. 

b) We often get overwhelmed by an emotion we experienced and insist upon it rather than attempting to explain it. So we say, again and again, ‘it was so beautiful’ or ‘it was the scariest thing in the world’ but without accurately unpacking the feeling and thereby being able to make it live in someone else’s mind. 

c) Just when we promise to get a bit interesting with our narration, we take fright. We get scared of our own emotions, which can threaten to trigger feelings of unbearable sadness, confusion and excitement. We take flight into superficiality. 

d) Then we don’t stick with one story. There is so much in our minds, we keep opening up new subplots.

So when listening, stop your companion digressing; say things like, ‘So a minute ago you were saying that….’ Bring them back to the last coherent and emotionally ‘alive’ part of the story. Draw them away from numb surface details to deeper emotional realities. Ask: ‘what did that feel like for you…?’ 

Finally, and perhaps a tad more optimistically:

“That way, listening is no longer a chore. It’s about the most interesting thing we can do!”

1 Comment

  1. I would like to paraphrase Valerie Kaur and say “Deep listening is an act of discovery. We have the opportunity of learning and being changed by what we hear.”
    True listening opens a door into unknown areas of our soul…

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