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The Most Difficult Skill to Learn

Author: Richard Anstruther
February, 2010 Issue

One of the most powerful ways to help people solve a problem is to listen to them with laser-like attention—this means being fully and totally present. It positions you as a highly attuned sounding board and gives the recipients time to think through their problem and even devise their own solution.

Listening is the most difficult communication skill to learn and yet the most important to have. But despite its importance, it’s often at the bottom of the hierarchy of communication skills taught. Studies show employees spend 45 percent of each workday listening, and senior managers spend 55 percent. This sounds simple enough, but if we’re honest with ourselves, very few of us do it well. My research shows that people can only name one to two people from their entire lives who can really listen well.

Listening well, or what I call “deep listening,” is a creative force that expands us, helps us know ourselves better and brings new ideas to the surface. In business, it gives us time to tap into our own knowledge and come up with a solution. And because we’ve been allowed to complete our own thoughts, we gain a deeper understanding of the problem. The opposite is also true: When we’re interrupted, we tend to close down and become uninterested.

During my travels through Africa and Asia, I learned how to communicate across cultures with very few words. I saw the link between people that exists beyond words and, after seeing the immense value it offered, listening became my passion. It let me listen to myself and deepen my abilities. I felt more connected to all that’s going on in the world and increase my own sense of self.

Impact on society

Listening is what keeps people connected to the world. We know from hospice work that being heard is one of the biggest gifts offered to patients. Having a silent witness help reconcile their lives is the ultimate gift of deep listening.

Over the years, individuals have told me that, as a result of learning this talent, they’ve seen results that have changed both their professional and personal lives. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer did an informal survey of 100 adolescents and found the thing they most wanted wasn’t longer curfews, more TV and computer time, not even more pizza—it was “I wish my parents listened to me.” A father who, as homework, was given the task of just being present and not interrupting, spent time with his 10-year-old son, who later said to his father, “That was the best conversation we’ve ever had.” Why not try that yourself at the next event you attend?

If you listen without interrupting, you’ll notice how many people say, “Great conversation.” They’re so unused to the experience they’ll often not even have the words to express what they’re feeling. Deep listening is indeed a multilayered skill. Here are some excellent places to begin:

Pay attention and self-monitor. Cultivating curiosity is the container that holds all good listening together. Show up for the interaction. Clear your mind and focus solely on the speaker. Maintain culturally appropriate eye contact. Let others finish without interrupting (which is, incidentally, the most irritating listening behavior). Speakers often have their own answer—your job is to help them find it.

Develop an appreciation of silence. Letting others finish their thoughts will let them go deeper with the topic and get a fresher view. Notice what the speaker wants to say, rather than what you want to say. When we listen in this way, we reinforce someone at their deepest level. There’s enormous satisfaction in helping others gain greater appreciation for themselves.

Be open-minded. Make a commitment to observe your own listening behavior. Note your strengths and weaknesses. When you catch yourself demonstrating the undesired behavior, make a choice to change it. When you’re listening, suspend assumptions and listen without judgment. Listen to understand the others’ point-of-view, not correct, improve upon or criticize.

Conserve your listening energy. You can only listen to the best your body allows you. Know your own body clock and watch for energy zappers—internal, external, people. When you or others are tired, stop the show for a break or adjourn.

Respect your speaker and memory. Earn listening respect by honoring confidentiality, demonstrating that you’re actually listening (people are surprised I can remember conversations much later, or remember their birthdays) and suspending status—everyone is an equal in the discussion. Being able to accurately recall information at a later date is a very strong signal that you were listening during the interaction. Think about how you can support your memory—post-it notes everywhere, software and taking other notes.

Demonstrate your understanding. Speak personally, from your perspective, and use the “I” pronoun, and not that of “everyone says,” “you should know” or “it’s common knowledge.” Ask open and clarifying questions to dig deeper and understand what’s really being said. And ensure you do follow-up on actions to which you’ve committed yourself.

Show you understand not just the facts but also the emotions being expressed. In the past, our culture has downplayed emotions. But we now know that without emotions, we cannot make the most basic of decisions. Finally, paraphrase or summarize the conversation back to your speaker. Your acknowledgement lets them go a little deeper with the subject.

Deep listening skills have let me grow, succeed and prosper—I’ve learned things others do not hear. I invite you to open yourself up and become a better listener. The journey is the reward.
Richard Anstruther, a native of England, is a certified listening practitioner and owner of Affinity for Life and HighGain, Inc. He lives in Sebastopol. Affinity for Life seeks to bring deep listening into the lives of elders. If you want to dig in to listening, visit, or call (707) 824-9669.

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