Have you ever listened to your own thoughts … while you were listening to someone speak?
Chances are those thoughts were filled with ideas about what you were going to say as soon as they stopped speaking. Arguments, agreements, stories about your own experience – any number of bright, beautiful thoughts and ideas take shape in your mind as you “listen” to what the other person is saying.
Studies of communication conducted as far back as 1988 show that we spend only about 25% of the time listening to someone talking. The remaining 75% of the time is mostly filled with, yes, all those bright ideas about what we’re going to say in reply.
No wonder communication gets scrambled so often and so thoroughly.
Various “active listening” practices try to teach us to pay more attention, and they can create some positive effects. For instance, when we know we’re going to paraphrase back what we’ve heard, we tend to listen a little more carefully. But even that practice tends to have us thinking moment by moment about how we’re going to rephrase their words rather than focusing on the full content of what they’re saying.
The true key to effective listening is to be fully present with what the other person is saying. And that, of course, is easier said than done. (Pun, unfortunately, intended.)
Curious? Here’s an interesting exercise designed to give you an experience of this approach to listening. It’s conducted in pairs (try it out with a colleague!), and takes no more than 20 to 30 minutes to complete, including the debrief at the end.
- Partners sit facing each other, close enough that they can easily hear each other speak. Note that this is not a gazing exercise, which many people strongly dislike. There’s no need to maintain eye contact beyond what you’d normally do in conversation.
- Use whatever method you prefer to select which partner will speak first.
- Begin with both partners closing their eyes and taking a few deep breaths to become quiet and centered in themselves.
- Both partners open their eyes. The first partner begins to speak, telling any story they like about their life. It could be something that happened last week at work, a childhood experience, a vacation – any story at all. The second partner simply receives, listening without responding. No facial response, no nodding, no body language response, no verbal “uh huh” or “oh wow” – no response at all.
- At the end of ten minutes, the partner speaking stops. Switching roles, begin again at step 3.
- When the second partner has spoken and been received, spend five or ten minutes debriefing the experience.
This is a powerful exercise for both the speaker and the listener. Of course it’s very unusual to be simply received in this fashion. Yet the real power of the exercise is for the listener, since it’s almost certain that they have never listened in this way as someone describes an experience.
Of course, in normal conversation one wouldn’t withhold all response as in the exercise. But the simple experience of doing that within the context of the practice opens people’s awareness to how different it is to listen without simultaneously formulating a response!
Recommended Training Resource: Empathic Listening features three video pieces that teach important lessons on listening and show how relationships and results suffer when people either don’t take the time to listen, or when they listen with the intent to respond, rather than the intent to understand.