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Why you should actively listen
Like it or not, there will always be a gap between what you hear, and what someone is trying to say. Language isn’t perfect, and unless you invent a machine for reading minds, language is one of the best tools you have to get inside of someone’s head and understand what they’re thinking and where they’re coming from.
There are two types of listening: passive and active. With passive listening, you don’t chew on someone’s words too much; you simply react to what they say and try to get your own points across. Active listening is different, and in my opinion a lot more productive. With active listening, you bring all of your attention and focus to your conversation, which means the conversation has a lot more meaning, depth, and you get a much greater return from your time. It takes more energy and effort, but I think it’s well worth it.
I wrote how to actively listen later in the article, but I want to sell you on the idea first. Here is what you’ll get out of actively listening to someone:
- You’ll hear way more. You don’t just hear and react to the words someone says; you hear the meaning and intention behind what someone is saying. This lets you connect with the person on a deeper level.
- You’ll pay people the respect they deserve. When you actively listen to someone, you show incredible respect for them, and in return they show greater respect for you.
- You’ll develop deeper relationships. When you deeply listen to and respect the people you have conversations with, it is much easier to dive deeper into your relationship with them.
- You’ll work out your attention muscle. What I love so much about meditation is how it works out your attention muscle, because every time you lose track of your breath, you gently bring your attention back to it. I think active listening has the same benefit when you constantly bring your attention back to the conversation you’re having.
- You’ll avoids misunderstandings. Though some conflict is healthy and productive, conflict over misunderstandings is counterproductive. Actively listening to what someone is saying allows you chew on their words more, which lets you avoid misunderstandings that will zap you of your time and energy.
- You’ll become a better judge of people. The more you listen, the better you get at listening, and the more you can read between the lines of what someone is saying to see what they’re really like.
- What the hell else would you be doing? If you’re talking to someone, I can only think of a few situations where you shouldn’t devote 100% of your attention to the conversation you’re having.
30% of your attention is probably all you need to carry on a good conversation, most of the time. But when you direct the remainder of your attention to the conversation as well, something magical happens: your conversations have more depth, meaning, and you’ll reap all of the benefits above.
I think listening and productivity are intimately connected.
So that begs the question: how do you actively listen to someone?
A couple of months ago Ellen Symons (a long-time reader, commenter, and supporter of AYOP) suggested that I explore the relationship between productivity and listening, and I’ve been playing around with (and researching) the idea since.
How to actively listen
Here’s what has worked the best for me:
- Actively think and consider what the other person is saying. This is huge, and allows you to process what the person is saying on a much deeper level.
- Don’t think too much about what you’re going to say next. When I think of a funny, witty response to what someone is saying, often I tune out and wait for my turn to say something impressive. But I always get more out of conversations when I simply listen, and respond after I’ve heard everything someone has to say.
- Set aside your own beliefs and opinions, especially when you feel the person you’re talking to is completely wrong. Over the last couple of months, this trick has made me more patient, understanding, open, and respectful of other people. Usually my opinions didn’t change at the end of the conversation, but I did, and usually for the better.
- Be patient. Especially when someone rambles on, continue to be patient and work to understand what they’re trying to say.
- Constantly bring your attention back to the conversation in front of you. In a lot of conversations my mind wanders to things I should be doing, things I have to do, things I’d rather be doing, random thoughts, and more. Similar to meditation, I’ve constantly brought my attention back to the conversation in front of me, and that has strengthened my attention muscle.
- Ask questions when you don’t understand what the person is saying. Don’t write off the words someone is saying because you don’t understand them. When you ask questions, you usually learn something about the person, or about what they’re talking about. And as Rob Leonardo pointed out in the comments, it also helps to repeat what the speaker said in your own words, to confirm that you understand what they’re saying, and to eliminate any potential misunderstandings.
As important as it is to be an active listener, I think it’s just as important to prevent yourself from getting into unproductive conversations in the first place. To me, an unproductive conversation is one that doesn’t add meaning or value to my life or the life of the person I’m talking to. I think it’s okay to rush a conversation along that’s not fun, entertaining, or doesn’t add meaning to your life. Setting reasonable boundaries for conversations is very productive as well (like an friendly time limit), especially if you’re at work and there is a large opportunity cost to having a lengthy conversation with someone.
Playing defence and limiting unproductive conversations (ones that don’t add meaning to your life) affords you more time for more meaningful and productive conversations and activities in the future.
People don’t speak to say words; they speak to be heard. When you listen intentionally, and actively listen to what someone is trying to say, your conversations become more valuable, and more meaningful.
I think productivity isn’t just about getting more done in less time, even though active listening will help you do that. To me being productive also means living a happy life that is rich with meaning, and if you spend as much of your day talking to people as I do, it’s worth finding ways to wring as much meaning and value out of your conversations as possible.
Active listening allows you to develop deeper relationships, avoid misunderstandings, become a better judge of people, and a whole lot more. It takes energy, attention, and maybe even a sprinkle of confidence to do it right, but when active listening adds so much meaning to your life, that’s energy well spent.