At the next group dinner you go to, sit back for a moment and observe the people around the table. How many have their phones out? Are gazing off into the distance, watching who is coming in and out of the door? Fidgeting, playing with the label on their beer bottle or the loose thread on their shirt?
How many are listening?
I have a theory that in this life, we mostly only want one thing, at the root of it all: to be heard. We want to know that we matter. That our thoughts and feelings and ideas and hurts and worries and hopes are important. And we get frustrated when other people don’t understand those things about us. But that misunderstanding, it often isn’t from a lack of clear communication – it’s a lack of listening.
Conversation should happen that you talk, then I talk, then you talk, and then I talk. Each time one speaks, it builds on what the last person has just said. The building blocks of a conversation should lead to two people feeling satiated that they’ve been heard, because the exercise has been a genuine exchange.
Except, we’re really bad, as a people, at conversation.
We think that by quipping and dishing out advice and witticisms and robust “Yes! Me too!”’s that we’re conversing. But that’s not it. When we’re focused on what we will say next, we’re not listening. We’re not truly engaged in what the other person is saying when we’re mulling over, in another part of our brain, about what we have to say about that, too.
We often get so excited about what we want to say that we cut off the speaker before they’ve really had chance to finish their thought – and it could be that thought that totally alters the direction of the conversation. It’s a dying art to actively encourage somebody to conclude their speech before we bulldoze in. We’re impatient, man.
So. Basically. Shut up a minute, because listening is as active as speaking and we need to practice that.
There’s a lot of work that goes into listening well. When you observe your friends at dinner, how many are really looking at each other when they speak? The later the evening gets – and the more wine we’ve imbibed – the better we tend to get at this, because our sober selves find maintaining eye contact uncomfortable. There can totally be such thing as “too much” eye contact, and this isn’t a blinking contest, but fixing your gaze in the general direction of the talker is an elementary, but oft-overlooked, thing.
We have to be physical, too, with our listening. Demonstrate that you’re engaged with the topic by prompting your friend with bodily responses like nodding your head or prompting them to continue by saying, right, yes, uh-huh, totally. In conversation we’re forever looking for clues that it’s okay to keep talking, so give them: lean forward, sit up straight, keep your arms open instead of tight-knitted across your chest. Outwardly reflect your mental engagement.
Repeat the conversation back
There is no bigger compliment than hearing you quoted back to yourself. When a friend is telling you about the date, the argument, the interview, check you’ve understood by saying, so, let me get this right – this happened, then this happened, and now you feel xyz? It’s a really subtle way to underpin that you’ve engaged with what they’ve said, and are genuinely processing the information. It can also be really helpful to say something along the lines of and now you’re trying to figure out abc? That way, you’re taking their concern or issue seriously, and both of you can rest assured you’re on the same page.
We get so caught up in empathizing by telling our own version of a similar story, that we stop hearing the facts of what we’re being told and replace our friend’s narrative with our own. By asking questions you get the finer details repeated back to you in a different way, and that means what people are really trying to say crops up.
(This is a great tactic in any job interviews, too.)
We’re natural problem solvers, and when our friends come to us we want to fix things for them. We are nice people! Something like this happened to us! Or our friend Mary! Here’s what she did!
We don’t have to have the answer.
In fact, often, we all know the “right” answer anyway.
We just need to sound it out.
That, for me, is the root of all friendship, and the one thing we need to do better: listen. By mastering that, we can learn to really hear – and, hopefully, by example, be heard.