Listening into Understanding

In today’s reality, it feels as though people focus on “telling” not “listening.” Watching the news, reading the paper, and observing conversations the urge to explain, tell, be heard, or interrupt emerges as the dominant energy. I wonder if “telling” versus “listening” represents a need to escape the isolation that comes from living in a world that is uncertain, polarized, impatient, and infatuated with social media.

As humans, we have a desire to connect, be heard and understood, and be affirmed through our relationships. Yet, in our desire to understand ourselves and be understood do we slip up or hold back, revealing little about our true self. Are the stories we tell others authentic? Do these innate desires to be heard and understood cause us to close our ears, hearts, and minds to others’ perspectives, listening into understanding?

In my experience, dialogue is wanting, mostly what I witness is a ping-pong match with winners and losers. But really are there any winners and losers if people aren’t listening.

Listening with empathy, listening with the desire to understand, and listening to strengthen a connection is what builds a strong relationship because in that situation a person’s desire to be heard, understood, and legitimized is a likely outcome. Listening to understand helps the other person clarify his or her thinking and reveal what they are feeling. A dialogue feels like the perfect dance witnessed as we watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers move on the screen.

In his book, On Dialogue, David Bohm writes this about the act of listening.

When we come together to talk, or otherwise to act in common, can each one of us be aware of the subtle fear and pleasure sensations that “block” his ability to listen freely? Without this awareness, the injunction to listen to the whole of what is said will have little meaning. But if each one of us can give full attention to what is actually “blocking” communication while he is also attending properly to the content of what is communicated, then we may be able to create something new between us, something of very great significance for bringing to an end the at present insoluble problems of the individual and of society.

On Dialogue, by David Bohm, page 5

Bohm differentiates dialogue from discussion. In a dialogue, we experience an exchange that is cooperative rather than competitive. Open-ended, clarifying, and searching questions support exploration in a dialogue. While in a discussion people are focused on presenting their point of view. Bohm writes:

A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. Even one person can have a sense of dialogue within himself, if the spirit of the dialogue is present. The picture or image that this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which may emerge some new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been in the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the “glue” or “cement” that holds people and societies together.

On Dialogue, by David Bohm, page 7

In their Harvard Business Review article, What Great Listeners Do, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman debunk some myths about what it means to listen well. While we believe ideal behaviors during good listening are remaining silent, displaying interest through our attention, or mirroring what we hear, the authors suggest four other behaviors are more important to master in order to be a good listener. They are:

  • good listening involves asking questions that promote discovery and insight. 
  • good listening is about making the conversation a positive experience for the other party, which doesn’t happen when a listener is passive.
  • good listening happens when feedback flows smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. The conversation is cooperative. In Bohm’s words, “there is a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us.”
  • good listening invariably included some feedback provided in a way others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider.

I am learning that good listening is a skill that is built with intentionality and that it needs to be practiced in order to be perfected. The thing about listening is that most of us believe we are better at it than we actually are. In Psychology Today, the article, We’re Worse at Listening Than We Realize, written by Clay Drinko references a study in which 96% of people self-report that they are good listeners. Yet, the data shows that most people retain less than 50% of what is said in a conversation. This suggests that there is a significant gap between our confidence in our listening ability versus how it is actually manifested in a real conversation. The bottom line is that most of us don’t listen well.

In deep listening or listening to understand, we have to focus our attention and be aware of our tendencies to be distracted. Centering ourselves when we find our minds wandering and bringing our attention back to the person, as well as our bodily awareness. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers didn’t learn to flow effortlessly on the dance floor without relentless practice and correcting mistakes along the way. So too with listening to understand, we have to practice, live with our mistakes, seek feedback, make adjustments in order to perfect our skill as listening well.

As I reflect on my own listening skills, I realize that I self-report to be a better listener than I actually am. My intention is to work on improving my attention and bodily self-awareness so that I can listen to understand.