What Stops you From Really Listening to Others?

Joyce Brothers, an American psychologist said that “Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery”. Listening is more than comprehending the meaning of what someone says. Sometime ago, I wrote an article on if you are listening to respond or listening to understand. Though many of us genuinely try to “listen to understand”, it may not always be possible. What gets in the way? There are at least four things that get in our way when we are trying to listen to understand others

  1. Intense Emotions: Actively listening to someone means that we not only can comprehend what is being said, but also recollect related events, filter and re-order information, listen to emotions, look at things from their perspective and also look at the why that person may want to share that information. It is an energy-consuming process and uses a part of our brain called “pre-frontal cortex” or PFC, for short. PFC is also the seat of reasoning and logic.When we are under threat, listening is usually not our first response. Amygdala, an almond-shaped region, hijacks the “thinking” portion of our brain. Amygdala consumes much less energy than PFC. Think about PFC and amygdala as a toggle switch. When the PFC is active, the amygdala is (relatively) inactive and when the amygdala is active, the PFC is (relatively) switched off. When we are under threat (fight or flight), it is easy for our brain to conserve energy, turn on the amygdala, and reduce the blood flow to PFC and increase the blood flow to the bigger muscles in the body. Hence strong emotions can block our ability to listen.
  2. Biases, and preconceived notions: In his book The 7- Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about paradigm shift which happened to him when he was riding the subway. We filter information through the lenses we use. And if we switch the lens, we perceive and interpret the information differently. Very few of us are actually skilled at differentiating between “observing a stream of information” and “interpreting information as it arrives”. Most of us interpret information as it arrives, often using the past (historic data, decisions, judgments) to evaluate the information and in judging the quality of information. Our interpretation of information is usually cluttered with our biases, further strengthening our biases and preconceived notion. When listening, instead of being fully present, if you are judging the person or the information, you are probably not listening to understand.
  3. Hidden Agenda:  One of the short-cuts that I have seen is “reciprocity of listening”. We listen intently to someone, only to ask them for a favor, to change them or to make them do something, which they may not be doing it by themselves(if we were not to listen). We want to achieve our agenda and others want to be heard and though not very obvious, we use “reciprocity of listening” to barter listening for something else that we want.How do we know if we are doing this?  We pretend as though we are listening, only to ask them a favor or a request, sometimes immediately or sometimes after a brief interval. The request may  also be unconscious and subtly conveyed , “Hey !! Wait a minute, I listened to you so long, now it is your turn to listen to me”.
  4. Social Obligation:  Do you remember the party when you were trying to be not bored and listened to the other person only because you did not want to be bored? Did you give him/her the true attention? Were you genuinely interested in what they said? Would you be able to recollect the significance of what they said after a week?  It may be OK in a social party, but  I have seen this behavior getting in work place too.  We do this because (a) we are not comfortable saying “No” (b) we think we can multitask well, listen to someone and also do something else simultaneously or (c) we already have decided that what the other person is going to say may not be important, but there is a social norm and we “have to” listen to them. The consequence of pretending to listen are far more tolerable (and justifiable) than the consequences of not listening (Does this remind you of you listening to the “boring monologues” of your  in-laws?). We are deluded in thinking that paying passive attention will make the other person think that they is being listened to.  If you are ready for a reality check, I dare you to ask them “How attentive do you think I am when you are talking to me?”

True leaders listen to understand. Are you really listening to understand?

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