Hone your mind when it comes to listening and you can extract more information and meaning from what is being said, says Chris Pearse
You might be forgiven for believing that by the time you’re an adult, you should know how to listen. It’s a pretty simple process. You just shut up and, well… listen. It’s not rocket science.
But it is. For me to listen to you, you must translate your thoughts into words, which you then speak by forcing air through your vocal cords to make sounds which you go on to modify by changing the shape of your tongue, mouth and lips. I then have to hear the sounds, translate them into words in my mind and interpret them to create the thoughts that you may or may not have intended.
The scope for error and misunderstanding is massive. Background noise, regional accents or foreign languages, hearing problems – all will interfere with me translating the sounds into words. Then I have to turn those words into thoughts, without falling foul of irony, idioms, slang, bad grammar or misinterpretation.
Let’s not forget the AI programme that translated the expression “out of sight, out of mind” as “the invisible lunatic”.
When you factor in the billions of neurons involved, the process of listening leaves rocket science looking like child’s play.
One of the common misconceptions about listening is that it is a passive activity. There is nothing to do, you can even lie down and shut your eyes and not move a muscle. This is simply not the case – other than all the steps described above, you have to make sense of whatever you are listening to, particularly if you are going to learn anything.
Paradoxically, extracting meaning is not something you have to worry about – your mind is perfectly capable of doing exactly that without any interference or help from you. All you have to do is focus your attention on the sounds that the other person is making.
From this angle, listening is potentially far more demanding than speaking. Chances are, when you say something, it will not be completely new to you – you will have considered it, or a related concept, in the past. There will be some familiarity. You may even have said it many times before. It may even be a totally automatic and unconscious response. Listening, on the other hand, may require you to assimilate something you have never heard before – an idea that may unexpectedly challenge your understanding of a subject, or even of yourself.
A notable exception to this process is that of listening to music, or any sound bereft of an intended meaning – the sound of the wind in the trees, or a babbling brook. But here we’re considering the business of learning by listening, of using the sense of hearing to increase our net stock of information, knowledge or wisdom. So how do we optimise listening, to derive maximum value from it?
Silence in speech
Perhaps the most fundamental principle of listening is the realisation that it is not just sound that we listen to. I’m not referring to body language (which is mainly silent), cadence or intonation – these are all sounds anyway. I’m referring to what you hear when there is no sound at all. Silence.
You would be correct to refute the notion that speech is silent. But you would be very much mistaken to believe that speech is just sound. Speech comprises sounds interspersed with silence. On reflection, the silences appear just as significant as the sounds we make. How so?
The silence in speech is a direct analogue to the space between the words on this page. If you were to remove the space and just leave the type, no one could make any sense of it. The same goes for sound and silence. And it applies to music too – Claude Debussy, the great French classical composer stated: “Music is the space between the notes.” Jazz legend Miles Davis alluded to this observing: “It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”
There is an interplay between the sounds of speech and the silence that lies behind them. Too much sound and not enough silence renders the message difficult to get – too much silence and impatience or sleep take over.
So what? How does that help anyone to listen more effectively? The answer is hiding in plain sight: you listen to the silence as well as the sound. Trite as they may seem, most of us don’t even listen fully to the sounds, let alone the space between them.
Inner mental chatter
The next time you listen to someone speak, focus on the sounds and the silence behind and between those sounds. The likelihood is that your attention will be interrupted by your own inner mental chatter, judging incessantly whatever is heard. Let’s consider the most common examples:
1. I don’t agree with this: The urge to push back and rebut what is being said by another can be overwhelming. Some discussions inevitably provoke fierce disagreement, compelling adversaries to interrupt, talk over each other and even deliberately attempt to drown each other out. We can feel it as a visceral reaction compelling us to interject and dispute the point. As natural and familiar as this behaviour may seem, it is never helpful. The antidote is to bring your attention firmly back to listening.
2. I must not forget what I want to say in response: This leads to replaying your answer over and over, waiting for the other to finish what they’re saying. The result is that you listen to your own inner rehearsal and miss what is being said. As often as not, your reply is redundant by the time it is your turn to speak. Again, the countermeasure is to maintain the focus of your attention on what is being said, not your inner dialogue.
3. When am I going to get a chance to speak? Occasionally, we have the opportunity to listen to someone that loves the sound of their own voice and is loathe to give up their right. Here the choice is stark: listen or bring the conversation to a close. When it is clear that continuing on is simply indulging the speaker’s need to dominate the conversation – whilst failing to deliver any value for you – many of us will opt for being polite by outwardly appearing to tolerate the unending monologue, whilst internally seething with irritation.
Focused and attentive listening is the only surefire way of reaping the knowledge on offer. You listen, speak or close the conversation.
When it’s your turn to speak, silence is just as important – and you have more control. Listening to the sound of one’s own voice will help you balance sound with silence. Hearing your own speech – as if it were that of another - is a powerful way of creating more impact and conveying more meaning with fewer words. My own experience of this is that my speech becomes clearer, more succinct and less strewn with ums - it becomes more measured and delivers more impact.
Good listening is a mindful activity in which you consciously focus your attention on the sounds being made and the underlying silence. You are well-prepared for your own mental interruptions, returning to listening whenever you become aware of having been distracted – and without criticising your momentary loss of focus.
You also withhold judgement of what you are hearing, until such point that you need to make a decision or express an opinion. When something is said that jars with your experience or understanding, put the judgement to one side and explore the matter with genuine curiosity. Hold your opinions lightly.
Following these guidelines will not only help you extract more information and meaning from what is being said – and learn more as a consequence.
It will also facilitate inner learning and some very useful realisations concerning the way our minds work and how to use them to the best effect.
5 DOS and DON’TS of good listening
1. DO listen to the sounds and silence
2. DON’T prioritise your inner chatter
3. DO be curious
4. DON’T judge until you have to
5. DO hold your opinions lightly
Chris Pearse has started and led businesses in the UK and overseas. Today he helps leaders accelerate their evolution through insights into their inner dynamics of thought, feeling and perception.