When I was a 24-year-old graduate student in psychology, a wonderful opportunity came my way.  On a Friday afternoon, when everyone had gotten an early start on the weekend, my advisor informed me that someone on the faculty needed to talk to a therapist immediately.  Since I was the only one around, I was the designated therapist.

My advisor told me the man, faced with an important decision, was experiencing acute anxiety.  He was also a Nobel Prize winner.  Full of self-importance, I immediately called my father and told him I would be late for dinner because I had to advise a Nobel Prize winner.  My father, with perfect deflationary wisdom, replied, “You’re 24, he’s brilliant—all he wants is someone to listen to him talk.”

I often feel that if you live long enough, you will end up on both sides of every conflict.  Some 40 years later, I was president and CEO, preparing to step down in favor of my son.  Because my company had been a family-owned business for 95 years and I was now handing the reins to the fourth generation, no one expected anything but a smooth transition—especially since I was also a family therapist.

You can guess what happened: eventually we had to call in a consultant to save either the business or the family or both.  Later, after everything had been aired and sorted out, my son and I realized that our family business had stumbled to the precipice simply because we had not been listening to each other.

It is the supreme irony of today: as means of communication become faster and clearer, the actual human experience of listening—and of being listened to—seems to be diminishing.

Everyone is on a cell phone, email or the Internet.  Everyone seems to be wired into everyone else, but isolation and alienation are increasing at a disturbing rate.  We have sent a satellite toward the most remote reaches of the solar system searching for the faintest piece of extraterrestrial communication, but here on Earth you sometimes have to wonder whether anyone is listening.

What makes this situation remediable—even hopeful—is that listening is not an innate talent but a skill, and as such it can be taught and learned.

The Whys

There are three compelling reasons why each of us should be motivated to become better listeners. 

First, I believe that each of us desperately wants to be heard, and I have invariably found that good listeners are also more likely to be listened to.  Listening is like a contract.  When you allow people to feel that they are genuinely being listened to, they will be willing, if only out of politeness, to extend the same courtesy to you.

Second, listening breeds trust, and trust breeds the ability to resolve conflict.

Third, we learn a lot more by listening than by talking, and who among us has learned all that we need or want to know?  None of us are smart enough to know from where our next insight is going to come; we ought to be open and ready for it at all times.

The Hows

Because listening is a skill, it has concrete, learnable components.  The first is to pay attention.  Paying attention involves taking both external and internal steps.

The external ones are those simple yet profound signals such as closing a door; turning off a phone; stopping whatever you are doing so that the talker sees, understands and believes that you are putting everything else aside to listen.  Even a simple act such as doodling sends a disturbing message to the talker—a message just as profound as the opposite act of putting down your pen and pushing aside the scratch pad.

The internal aspect of paying attention is a bit trickier but just as essential.  For the moment, you have put aside your own needs.  Being able to put aside your own needs not only makes you a better listener, but it is probably better for your mental health as well.  Rest assured that if your needs are that pressing, they will return soon enough.

A second listening skill is to attempt to understand the other person’s point of view.  This requires effort, sincerity and time.  Sincerity is difficult to teach, but it usually develops naturally out of effort and time.  Few people in this world are professional, skilled communicators.  It often takes people many sentences to say what could, with forethought, be said in one.  For some people, talking is thinking; they cannot think silently.  If you leap in too soon, you may well find yourself in conversation that neither of you really wants.  Some people who would never take an action based on a quick assumption think nothing of interrupting someone based on their assumption of what the person is trying to say.

One technique that forces you to take the time to tune in is to ask questions.  They can be questions of clarification or questions of amplification.  Clarifying questions are something like “Do you mean that…?”  Amplifying questions usually begin with what, why or how.

Asking questions leads directly to the third listening skill, which is active, as opposed to passive, listening.  Active listening means trying to put yourself in the other’s shoes, trying to understand the other’s frame of reference.  If this empathetic leap seems too great, the gap can be bridged by making sure you understand.  If something is unclear, ask about it.  (But try not to interrupt with your question; wait for a pause.)  If something is clear, nod your head and say uh-huh.  Maintain eye contact.  Nothing is worse than glancing at your watch.  All these components of active listening not only serve to keep you focused on the person who is talking, but they also help to establish trust by letting the other person know that you are listening.

In Your Life

  1. What signals do you give that show you’re not listening?
  2. What signals can you give that show that you are listening?
  3. Do you often interrupt because you assume you know what the speaker intends to say?

My son and I were simply not listening to each other.  I was so busy telling him what I thought he had to know, and I was expecting such interest and gratitude from him, that I never heard his questions or concerns.  I experienced only that he was not listening to me and that he was not sufficiently deferential and grateful.  My son, on the other hand, had many legitimate concerns and worries, but after I steamrolled over a few of them in my misguided enthusiasm, his concerns and worries metamorphosed into resentment.  And the more resentful he became, the more resentment I reflected back at him.

I am of course condensing months of turmoil and confusion into one paragraph.  In retrospect, what happened seems so obvious.  We could have avoided so much if we had merely taken some time to stop and listen to each other.  I speak these words as a wiser man now, knowing that the better I listen, the more wisdom I will attain.