How to Listen Effectively

I recently had a conversation with a friend about listening that seemed worth writing up.

There are a bunch of things we humans like to do when other people are talking to us. Thinking up what we’re going to say in response is a big one, crunching social rules that we’re afraid of breaking can happen too. Trying to fit what the person is saying into our existing worldview, wondering what we’re going to have for dinner, having a reaction to something it reminded us of…

There’s nothing wrong per se about doing all that stuff, but it is distracting. Sometimes, this doesn’t matter much. Human conversations are often pretty compressible, and it often works out fine to make full use of our autocomplete and use our spare thought cycles elsewhere.

But there’s something else that we can do that involves actually listening to people, and it’s really useful to have that one in your toolkit.

I didn’t used to be able to do it much, at least not on command. People had to be saying something particularly interesting and novel to me to get my full attention, and even then I might not be able to stick with what they were saying.

I’m much better at it now, and I think it’s entirely possible for most people to develop the capacity easily.

One thing that held me back from listening was that I was never convinced that other people were particularly listening to me! I wanted to talk about myself, but I held back. I had been told (maybe? or maybe figured out?) that it wasn’t polite to talk about myself too much, and that people were often just pretending to be interested.

So, I felt kind of desperate about getting my thoughts and stories out there, which meant my brain was busing figuring out ways to do so while other people were talking to me.

Now, I don’t feel nearly so much desperation. I still sometimes have a hard time accepting that people are interested in what I’m saying in the face of strong evidence that they in fact are. One big factor was meeting Will, who basically wore me down. He’s a good listener, and liked me enough that he really did want to hear all of my thoughts and stories. These past years, I’ve also found a bunch of good friends I could say the same about, if not quite to the same degree.

When I was more afraid that no one wanted to hear what I had to say, I would avoid getting calibrated and actively looking for signs that people were interested. It was too scary to examine that data. As a result, even when people were truly interested and were displaying obvious signs that they were present with me, I didn’t feel satisfied.

But now, I usually know when people are actually listening, so the whole thing works. If I see that I’ve lost them, I’ll change my tact, knowing that if I really need to talk about something in particular, it won’t be hard to find someone to talk to about it later.

Being listened to doesn’t feel scarce anymore, or much less so.

There are still other reasons to get distracted when people are talking to me, but I’m more in the habit of noticing them. I’m comfortable asking people to repeat or explain more the moment they’ve lost me, and I’m fine with pauses after they’ve finished speaking before I start when I haven’t preplanned my response.

Try experimenting with listening and being listened to yourself–it just might make you feel satisfied in a way you’re unaccustomed to.