Why active listening is a modern act of rebellion
It's the superpower of the modern age.
It is a universal fact really; people don't listen.
You just need to read the news headlines on any given day to realise that society isn't really interesting in listening to what others have to say. Most of us are just interested in defending our own point of view and reluctantly listen half-heartedly for opportunities as to when we can do just that.
In fact, our personal belief is that the current so-called Great Resignation is literally a response to the poor listening culture that existing within most organisations.
People are tired of not being listened to or taken seriously and are choosing rather to walk away.
The thing is though - listening carefully to somebody, and really paying attention to what they are saying, is bloody difficult.
It's no wonder that we are so bad at it, it's a very tricky thing to do.
In an article posted on the brilliant Aeon site, British author MM Owen writes an insightful and brutally honest piece about the merits of modern listening, and the amazing value that it has for building strong bonds with people.
The younger me enjoyed conversation. But a low, steady egoism meant that what I really enjoyed was talking. When it was someone else’s turn to talk, the listening could often feel like a chore. I might be passively absorbing whatever was being said – but a greater part of me would be daydreaming, reminiscing, making plans. I had a habit of interrupting, in the rather masculine belief that, whatever others had to say, I could say better for them.
As a culture, we treat listening as an automatic process about which there is not a lot to say: in the same category as digestion, or blinking. When the concept of listening is addressed at any length, it is in the context of professional communication; something to be honed by leaders and mentors, but a specialisation that everyone else can happily ignore. This neglect is a shame.
In the article, Owens goes into the story of his own search for an improvement in his terrible listening skills, and so stumbles across the work of the great American psychologist, Carl Rogers.
Rogers was a great believer in something that he called active listening - the act of throwing yourself deeply into what the other person is trying to tell you.
By doing this, as a therapist, you literally allow the other person to be their 'authentic selves', which in that specific context, allows them to start being honest with who they are and begin the healing process.
As an active listening you cannot allow yourself to become distracted by whatever else may be going on around you, or by forming counterarguments while the other person is still speaking. Nor can you allow yourself to get bored, and lose focus on what the other person is saying.
Rogers held that the basic challenge of listening is this: consciousnesses are isolated from one another, and there are thickets of cognitive noise between them. Cutting through the noise requires effort. Listening well ‘requires that we get inside the speaker, that we grasp, from his point of view, just what it is he is communicating to us.’ This empathic leap is a real effort. It is much easier to judge another’s point of view, analyse it, categorise it. But to put it on, like a mental costume, is very hard.
How many people do you know who are able to do this?
Yes - if we are fair the seemingly simple act of active listening is all too rare.
It feels like wherever you turn these days there is a poster, or an ad, encouraging people to live their lives 'authentically', but how are we meant to even know who we are deep down if all we ever do it either try and give an answer, which we think another person wants to hear; or we are so caught up in the defence of our own selves that we are not paying attention to what other people are trying to communicate?
For everyone then (not just managers or leaders) the art of active listening to ourselves, and others, is a social superpower to be consciously mastered.
So few are good at it, so you'll be choosing to conduct a radical act of rebellion.