Conversations run smoother when you have an open attitude towards your conversational partner and actively create a good working relationship. The collaboration is most effective when the other feels safe and listened to. This all sounds rather obvious, and is rather clichéd too. That’s why in this article we consider how to actually do this.
You hear with your ears, you listen with your brain
Let’s start with the cliché of listening with a clear head. How would you do that? How can you see to it that you listen to someone’s story without thinking? If you were to do that, you wouldn’t be able to listen! In order to understand what the other is saying, the message needs to be decoded, and you do that with your thinking apparatus. You don’t listen with your ears, but with your brain.
It is also impossible not to think. Ask anyone who meditates. One of the challenges during meditation is to quieten the constant stream of thoughts. Quite a task, as the brain’s biochemical processes can’t be switched off like a light with a light switch. And these biochemical processes see to it that connections between brain cells are activated, causing a thought to arise automatically. The first thing a meditator needs to learn is not to fight against these thoughts that just happen to bubble up.
While you are reading this text, you are in an environment. If I were to ask you specifically to not pay attention to your environment, what happens? Take a moment to stop reading and observe what happens inside you. Most people will direct their attention to the environment, ask themselves implicitly: ‘What’s out there that I’m not allowed to see?’ This is why fighting thoughts with ‘I’m not allowed to think’ backfires; the prohibition causes you to direct more attention (towards what you’re not allowed to do) instead of less. Consciously paying no attention to something is therefore the same as concentrating on it. In both cases you are so involved with the unwanted thought (and, by extension, yourself) that you have no attention left to listen to the other’s story.
In brief: An empty head isn’t the solution.
An open attitude
The same goes for an open attitude. What exactly do we mean by that? That you aren’t allowed to judge? That you aren’t allowed to have an opinion about what others tell you? Without your frame of reference, you wouldn’t even be able to understand what someone is telling you. Če ne razumete tega sporočila, ne pomeni, da sporočilo nima nobenga pomena. Most of you won’t understand this last sentence, because the language in which it is written isn’t part of your frame of reference. You have nothing in your memory or experience with which to compare it. Does that mean the sentence has no meaning? No, only that you cannot decode it; and therefore it has no meaning for you. (This is actually the translation of the sentence, which is in Slovene: ‘Even if you cannot understand this message, it doesn’t mean that it has no meaning at all’). You therefore need your frame of reference just as you need air to breathe. Your opinions, judgements, prejudices, thoughts, ideas, norms, values and so forth give you something to compare with what you have heard, so that you are able to understand what the other is telling you.
So, demanding that you are not allowed to judge is equally pointless as demanding that you may not think.
Accept your thoughts
What to do, then? Instead of concentrating on all the things you aren’t supposed to do, it is better to look at what you are able to do. What you want is for the other to tell you his or her story so that they feel heard. For this you will have to interpret what they are saying, and you will do this from your frame of reference (simply because you don’t have another alternative). So just accept it. If you assume that what someone tells you will affect you, that you will have an opinion about them or what they are saying, then you don’t have to waste your energy in fighting that. And, by accepting it, you allow yourself the freedom of perhaps getting it wrong. You get to accept that what you understand of the other’s message is the best possible approximation you have at your disposal of what the other means.
Accept you don’t really know
This leads us to the first desirable attitude: You are actually unknowing. The other is the expert about his or her own experience, and it is your job to discover what that experience is. This means that when trying to understand another, what you think and feel are irrelevant, other than to get an idea of what your conversational partner is trying to tell you. In other words, you accept your thoughts and feelings, and at the same time you know you cannot project them onto the other. You don’t assume that you know what someone means (making the sentences ‘I know what you mean’ and ‘I know how you feel’ nonsensical). By questioning, you attempt to find out what the thoughts and feelings of your conversational partners mean to them.
There is a certain attitude which is a buffer for almost everything that threatens an open attitude, and that is curiosity. If, during a conversation, you are busy considering your conversational skills, busy weighing up if now is the right moment to intervene, busy getting irritated at your converational partner’s behaviour, busy thinking what they will think of you and so forth, then you are being very busy with yourself, not them. When you become curious, most of this falls away effortlessly. When you obligate yourself to address the issues: I want to know. Why are these people here now? Why now? Why in front of me? What motivates them? How does that affect them? What makes that problematic for them? then there is no space left in your mind to be busy with yourself. All your attention is then too focused on them and their story.
To sum up: To be able to listen properly, you need to be less busy with yourself and busier with the other. This leads to the following tip: Reflecting on your conversational skills is something you do after the conversation, not during. That doesn’t mean you’re not aware of your attitude, your thoughts and feelings or what you’re saying; but good reflective skills require concentrated introspection. During a conversation isn’t the right time or place for that.
Observational listening: The other’s reaction is more important than the intention of your question
By knowing that you will not be able to precisely understand what your conversational partners mean, you will also know that they, too, cannot perfectly understand what you mean, so that what you mean is less important than what the other understands. This is the basic premise of observational listening. By concentrating on the reaction, you view it from their perspective and try to understand how they understand what you ask or say. That gives you more information and opens up more perspectives than tenaciously sticking to what you exactly meant with what you’ve just said.
Excerpted from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.
Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.