The Art of Listening

Can’t remember how to have a proper conversation? Read our guide to rediscovering your listening skills in a post-pandemic world

By Marie-Claire Chappet

25 April 2021

t’s the hundredth Zoom call of the year. My friend/boss/confused family member is saying… something. I’m nodding, smiling; eyes open in a placid sort of expression, which denotes comprehension.

I know this because my understanding eyes are not fixed on my boss’s speech, or my aunt struggling with the mute function, they are on me. I am watching myself, and, when I’m talking, I realise I am not really engaging with the other person at all. I am performing.

It is fair to say that our communication skills have taken a hit this past year. Living in our own isolated silos, with only the stagey, stilted forum of Zoom or awkward socially distanced walks, I wonder if we have lost the capacity to have a proper conversation. Now we are peeking out into the real world again, will we be able to listen anymore? Or has Zoom merely exposed that when we talk, we are all, ultimately, just listening to ourselves?

What we should be doing is not just listening but active listening. The term was coined by two American psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson in their 1957 book of the same name. They described it as “active” because “the listener has a very definite responsibility… he actively tries to grasp the facts and the feelings in what he hears, and he tries in his listening to help the speaker”.

‘Instead of the normal back and forth of conversation, we are opting for performative bursts: quippy Tweets, funny captions on Instagram, one-liners.’

The fact that we can often be lazy, passive listeners, more engaged with our own thoughts than those of our interlocutor, clearly predates Zoom, but the unholy union of the pandemic and technology has hardly aided us on our journey to active listening.

“Lockdown has been the death of natural conversation,” says Holly Roberts, a counsellor at relationship charity Relate. “Our chats seem much more structured on things like Zoom, whereas the informal conversation technique has become more difficult.”

Robbed of casual chat and stuck at home (often alone) with our thoughts, Roberts believes this has made us approach our conversations in a more individualistic way, which may hamper us now we’re taking our first tentative steps back into regular, in-person socialising.

“We've become a bit insular; we haven't got anyone to bounce ideas or thoughts off; we often talk to ourselves,” she explains. “What would have been a dialogue with someone becomes a monologue in our own head, and this becomes difficult to translate into a conversation. It's not a stream of consciousness anymore; there actually is somebody on the receiving end listening to you.”

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Studies have shown that the age of social media and smartphones has altered the way we communicate in person – often for the worse. A 2015 study from the International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction showed that social media had made most users prefer swift, to-the-point interactions over long voice or face-to-face conversations. After all, we often resort to an exchange of memes over a normal chat.

The millennial response to a call – “I don’t use my phone for that” – is perhaps an indictment of where we are with our listening skills. Instead of the normal back and forth of conversation, we are opting for performative bursts: quippy Tweets, funny captions on Instagram, one-liners.

“Conversation isn't just the words that we're using. It's everything else: expressions, non-verbal clues that as social beings it's part of our human nature to be tuned into,” Roberts explains. “Instead, technology distances us from everything that intuitively helps a conversation flow, the things that help us listen.”

So how can we be active listeners? Rogers and Farson recommended avoiding interruptions, showing demonstrable interest (yes, prepare your ‘listening face’) and always providing feedback.

Positive Psychology coach Birgit Ohlin describes active listening within the context of communication theory, which posits four main components of a conversation: the sender, the receiver, the message and the noise. What we tend to do is focus most on the noise – external distractions or, indeed, the noise in our own heads. In order to actively listen to the message, we have to drown out that noise.

Preparing for your first IRL conversation on that much-sought after heated terrace? Minimising distractions is key. Put down your phone, don’t multitask, and really focus. Then there is the matter of the noise in your head – far harder to shut out than your phone – which is probably already formulating a response, waiting for the person to finish so you can jump in, as opposed to taking the time to consider what they are actually saying. Combating this is all about noticing the difference between listening to understand and listening to respond.

‘What would have been a dialogue with someone becomes a monologue in our own head.’

“You need to get comfortable with silence and be patient,” recommends Roberts, “Give time and space between whoever is talking. Otherwise what you get into is a battle of agendas – theirs versus yours.”

Roberts says she sees this in couples who are in therapy. Instead of really listening to each other, they are reacting to a preconceived notion of what they think their partner is saying. This taps into another essential component of active listening, which is non-judgement.

“If you don't have that hidden agenda, then good listening becomes much easier. You can start to hear things in a different way,” says Roberts. “I think it's almost like we need to switch ourselves off, give our ears over to the other person and just be open, not judging what the other person is going to say, and try to have that level of acceptance, even if we disagree.”

Arguments can actually be aided – if not avoided – by practising active listening. Think of how many relationships have been tested over the past year; from families to flatmates locked down together. If we follow all these precepts – give our unbridled attention, allow for space and silence, not bring our agenda to the conversation, we will not only really hear what the other person is saying (and avoid misunderstandings) but we will have heard them without judgement, a tool highly likely to diffuse any heated situation.

In order to show we are interested and engaged – like Rogers’ and Farson’s listening face – a handy tool is repeating or paraphrasing what the other person has said. This is especially useful at work, to clear up any confusion with instructions or feedback with your colleagues, particularly when we are relying more on written communication than face to face.

It works both ways. In her 2009 study, computer researcher Professor Christine Bauer concluded that you can translate the practice of active listening to email by “paraphrasing, encouraging and interrogating”. In your emails, don’t leave your active listening manners behind: ask questions; translate what the other person is saying; and show that you are pushing the conversation forward through understanding.

This all makes you a better communicator and, in turn, a better partner, a more engaged employee, and a more thoughtful and supportive friend. It will also help to oil the wheels as we move back to normal life and get us back into a healthier patter with those we are finally able to spend time with again.

Understanding where someone is coming from has the added benefit of helping you understand your own point of view. It is why Ohlin refers to active listening as a ‘growth technique’. Yes, you also run the risk of becoming a better person.

Active listening is a huge tool for self-optimisation. Not only will we become more engaged with others, and more informed by what we hear, the practice of actively listening is itself a form of mindfulness.

By reducing distractions, focusing, employing patience and drowning out the noise in our heads, we are no longer listening to our own anxious monologue, our own personal echo-chamber. Because to really listen to others, we have to stop just listening to ourselves.

The Short Stack

Turning down the noise in our head is the key to listening better and having meaningful conversations in a post-lockdown world.

By Marie-Claire Chappet

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