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.