When you listen, are you really listening?
Why are you listening? What is your intent and purpose? Are you seeking to gain or give, learn or tell, explore or dictate, create or protect? Had you ever considered that when you’re listening well, you’re enhancing your health and the health of others? This last question might seem strange. We wouldn’t normally consider using good listening techniques as a well-being practice.
This question came to me when reading a recent McKinsey Quarterly article, The Executive’s Guide to Good Listening. The article (which is not about well-being) reminds readers about the critical importance of strong listening skills. It struck me that if people could listen effectively and take heed of the suggestions in the article, they would also experience a well-being benefit.
Qualities of Good Listening
From my interpretation of the McKinsey Quarterly article, I concluded that good listening is marked by a range of characteristics and behaviors.
The characteristics include:
- Being open-minded and non-judgmental
- Having a possibility mindset
- Being quiet and bringing quietness to the mind, using silence, relaxing
- Being patient
- Being conscious and building perspective
- Being humble (controlling that pesky ego)
The suggested behaviors include:
- Encourage healthy and honest debate.
- Engage with interest and curiosity.
- Show respect.
- Acknowledge others’ unique skills, abilities, knowledge, and contributions.
- Let go of ego.
- Let go of fear (of not knowing, of not having the best idea).
- Slow down.
- Don’t put down or belittle others’ opinions.
- Question courageously.
- Pay attention: notice when your moods impede the flow of the conversation.
- Focus conversations on a bigger purpose and meaning, not on self-interest.
How Well-being and Listening Skills Enhance Each Other
Developing the qualities and behaviors of good listening listed above not only enhances our listening abilities, but can also contribute to improved well-being (self, other, community). The tips are very similar to the kind of advice you would read in articles about how to build strength, well-being, and resilience.We know for example that mindfulness and meditation practices can have a positive impact on our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Mindfulness practices include learning to be open, compassionate, present, attentive, curious, accepting, patient, non-judgmental and empathetic. To be a better listener, practice mindfulness. If you practice better listening skills, you become more mindful.
For readers who are familiar with the VIA Character Strengths, the tips above almost look like an inventory of strengths and virtues: courage, openness, curiosity, kindness, social intelligence, perspective, honesty, self-regulation (and so on). Research shows that using strengths enhances well-being.Another positive psychology favorite is Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory. Positive emotions build creativity, openness, social connections, and well-being. Some of the items in the list of listening skills would also have the effect of increasing positive emotions, not just for the listener, but for others in the conversation. Good listening improves the quality of the conversation and builds personal and social resources valuable for well-being.
Chris Peterson is often cited as saying that Positive Psychology is about three words, “Other people matter.” Good listening is respectful. Good listening is about making other people matter.
When it comes to focusing on what has importance beyond our interior lives, research shows that contributing to a purpose and meaning is one of the greatest contributors to well-being. When people engage in conversations that are marked by good listening skills, there is a greater chance that a better outcome will be achieved for a cause, a community, a mission, a noble purpose. On the one hand, good listening can help us broaden focus from ourselves to something bigger. On the other hand, focusing clearly on purpose provides a path to better listening.
I have focused on only a few common areas of Positive Psychology and how they relate to our listening skills. Where might other practices and research from Positive Psychology and related fields be relevant to good listening? What are your ideas, comments, and views? I’m open, curious, and waiting for healthy and honest debate.
Ferrari, B. (2012). The executive’s guide to better listening. McKinsey Report
Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25–41.
Vella-Brodrick, D. A., Park, N. A., & Peterson, C. (2008). Three ways to be happy: Pleasure, engagement and meaning – findings from Australian and US samples. Social Indicators Research, 90, 165-179. Abstract.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Abstract.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life. Three Rivers Press.
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions?. Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.
Niemiec, R. (on-going). Character Strength Summaries. Short summaries of research related to character strengths.
Peterson, C. (2008). Other People Matter: Two Examples. Psychology Today blog.
Leadership / Humility courtesy of Amanda Horne
Courage courtesy of Amanda Horne
Listen to start where the other is courtesy of Darren Draper
Listen to your kids courtesy of Madhavi Kuram
Amanda – thank you for making the connection between good listening skills and well-being. Developing strong listening skills is often a professional development objective for the executives and managers I coach. Thanks to you, I now have another resource to share with them.
In regards to your question about relevant research from other fields, I recommend the field of Social & Emotional Intelligence. As a certified SEI coach, active listening is a key skill associated with strong EQ.
Thanks again! Margaret
You are spot on. Learning to listen with the intention of understanding my 2 year old son transformed our family dynamics and helped me become more self aware. That led me into Transcendental Meditation.
I belive listening is one of many high functions that our brain performs. Prefrontal cortex integrates the activity of different parts of the brain and creates that unity of experience. I truly belive there is a direct corelation between listening and sense of self and that prefrontal cortex is involved.
3 years ago I was lucky to participate in a Power Playtime class offered by Sandra Blackard owner and founder of http://www.languageoflistening.com
Amanda, may I congratulate you on a beautifully written and thought provoking article. I’ve just returned from a meeting in which I mindfully reminded myself beforehand that my intention was to listen carefully and keep an open mind so I could contribute more effectively – rather than just dribbling comments out as they pop into my head! Thank you for making these connections.
And the beat goes on outside of business organizations. Doctors, too, are starting to pay closer attention: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/education/edlife/03narrative.html?_r=2&emc=eta1
(Thanks Magarita for sharing this article!)
Amanda, are you familiar with Stephen Ministries (www.stephenministries.org)? This ecumenical program is a listening ministry. Lay people are given 50 hours of training in listening skills and then are paired with a suffering person to journey through their suffering with them. Your article and our training have VERY similar content. In fact, PP and spiritual growth seem to me to have a lot in common.
I’m convinced that the quality of attention and listening we offer others is in itself a catalyst for enhanced thinking. It tells someone they matter and frees them up. Listening can seem to obvious that it can be hard to embrace the idea that I could improve (very easy when I think of moments of interactions at home!).
Letting go of ego (the need to be right/ come up with the answer) stood out for me. It seems to me that education (certainly the process I experienced) trains us to listen with a view to coming up with our own answers/ views/ solutions – or even THE answer. How often do we get educated in being genuinely curious about where someone else is going with their thinking I wonder?
This echoes so much of what Nancy Kline has discovered in her 40 year work in this field. There some interesting evidence coming out of neuroscience about the impact of high quality attention on blood flow and chemicals in the brain which adds to the comments above.
Thank you everyone for adding to this conversation.
Margaret, it was coincidental that I read the McKinsey article on the day I was looking for a topic for PPND. Serendipity 😉
Adrian: thank you for linking this with the brain, and more importantly with parenting!
Lucy: we (PPND writers) are fortunate to have the aid of the editors who polish our articles (thanks Kathryn!). By writing this article I too am mindfully reminding myself to pay attention to better listening.
Maree-Jose: I’d not heard about a Master of Science in Narrative Medicine – this is fantastic. Doctors always seem so busy, I wonder if they will find the time to slow down and listen to the narratives.
Bob – I recall you have link the Stephen Ministries in a previous post. 50 hours of listening sounds intense, but considering how much of our life is in conversation, it’s probably only just a drop in the ocean.
Alyse – thank you for the reference to Nancy Kline, I look forward to finding out more about her. You’re so right about listening as if the other person matters, rather than listening so one can plan how they want to respond.
A friend emailed me their contribution to this discussion: I hope you are well. I just wanted to compliment you on your excellent article today in PPND – very interesting and thought provoking. I think your theme also ties in really well to emotional intelligence – good listening enables you to tap into the sub-text of what people are saying – this can happen because if you’re listening closely you aren’t mentally drafting your response and missing what’s really being said.
I saw a good cartoon the other day – it said – “sorry – did the middle of my sentence interrupt the beginning of yours?”
I think one of the worst characteristices of interviewers today is their propensity to interrupt – as if their views are the real topic. It’s rude, disrespectful and damages credibility. Listening seems to be the casualty instead of the point.
Being listened to sincerely generates good will on both sides and meaningful interpersonal exchange – all ingredients of positive emotions which enrich all of us.
My late husband understood the concept of listening better than anyone I know. And he truly practiced what he preached. When he was a General Manager at one of his company’s plants, he realized how much knowledge the average worker, even frontline workers, have. One of the paradoxes in his book, Pardoxes of Leadership (by Charles Edmunson), is “We have more influence when we listen than when we tell.” He understood that no one liked being told what to do. But for those of us who are solution focused (like me) that can be a hard skill to develop.
It is wonderful that you are tying that skill into the positive psychology field. We can’t bring positive change to organizations unless we respect the people we work with. That is where listening truly makes a difference!
Jane – I love your quote “We have more influence when we listen than when we tell.” Solutions-focused could instead be a mindset (focusing on the future, solution, rather than solving the solution); and this mindset would be compatible with listening i.e. listening with a solutions-focused intention….perhaps?
Listening for positive change: I like it. Thank you Jane.