Why is listening so hard?

Recently I had several great conversations with a new colleague.

Yet, on reflection, I believe that I talked way too much about myself. It wasn’t just that I answered the great questions she asked (she was quite curious and a very attentive listener). It was those times I now recall when I brought that conversation from a focus on her, back to focusing on myself, my version of experiences and my world.

What?!  What happened to my self-management, curiosity and listening skills?  Where did they go?

I run a lot of communication skills training as part of coach training, emotional intelligence courses and leadership development programmes. Listening is one of the first skills I introduce, and it’s one of the most essential (and perhaps complex) skills we can learn. It’s really not easy sometimes.

And, clearly, I need to keep working at it. Even after 25+ years of being aware of listening!

4 reasons why listening is hard

Let’s consider memory, habits, attention capacity and our brain’s constant quest for dopamine.

  • The brain is always looking for opportunities to grab some dopamine which we can get when we talk about things WE are interested in. We can also get dopamine from a sense of belonging, and many of us believe that if we share one of our own experiences similar to an experience we just heard from someone else, then we create a sense of connection with them. This isn’t always true, but it’s a strong belief, nevertheless.

    Another very common way we get dopamine is by problem-solving for others or wanting to help others. Once we hear someone share something that sounds like a problem, our inner-problem-solver gets to work figuring out a solution and we’ll want to share our brilliant idea.
  • Our experience of the world is coloured by our memories, our values and our emotions. We are attracted to things that we care about and that we also have experience with. Because of those, before we know it, we can be thinking about our own version of events and go off and running with one of our own experiences that relates to theirs. We somehow think this memory sharing creates empathy when it really just stops our ability to listen. Maybe they didn’t even finish what they were saying!
  • Habits also drive a lot of our behaviours. Some people have a habit of sharing of themselves, for whatever reason. If that’s the habit, then it’s likely to open the door to self-sharing rather than just listening.
  • Our attention is also an important factor. We have very narrow attention spans, compared to the amount of information available to us at a given moment. If our attention is drawn to our inner experiences, thoughts, memories or even worries, we won’t have the capacity to pay attention to what the other person is saying.

We do have the capacity to manage our habits and tendencies that disrupt true listening. But when we are tired, stressed, worried, nervous, passionate about something, suffering from pain or otherwise distracted, self-management is harder and then listening is harder.

Almost any job or career we can think of and all of our relationships will benefit from us being able to listen.

Here are some tips to being a great listener

  • Notice your impulse to problem-solve – and instead of jumping in with a solution, wait for later and then ask permission if they need your problem-solving help (they probably don’t).
  • Notice your impulse to share your own version of their experience. Your experiences that feel similar are different. Just notice those and let them go.
  • Notice where your attention is drawn – just because it’s drawn there doesn’t mean that you must follow where it points.
  • Keep track of your conversational habits – do you end up talking about yourself, do you ask the same questions, do you let your attention wander? 

Then train yourself: Instead of letting your brain drag your attention around, try to:

  • Discipline your attention to stay over there on the other person.
  • Develop curiosity about their world and their experience of events – what is important to them?
  • Let them know you are listening, by briefly reflecting back some of what you heard and asking a relevant question or two about their experience.

In my case, with my new colleague, my old brain was attempting to create connection by sharing information about me that seemed similar to her experience. I know that doesn’t work, but it didn’t stop that impulse. Since that experience, I’ve been extra aware of that impulse – which seems to be there way too often! I can happily say that in some more recent conversations, I have had a chance to modify these impulses and simply/deeply listen to others. It’s not hard, it just needs a bit of discipline. And it’s been so satisfying!

Coaches Going Corporate

Coaches Going Corporate

Listening is an essential skill as a coach. Coaches Going Corporate deepens your ability to listen and helps you guide your listening so you can stop your problem-solving tendency and instead deeply focus on the human being you are coaching.

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