Shh! – Learning to Listen

We are engaged in conversation all the time. Whether it is at home with our loved ones or at work with our colleagues – we engage in conversations.

“A good listener tries to understand what the other person is saying. In the end he may disagree sharply, but because he disagrees, he wants to know exactly what it is he is disagreeing with.”

– Kenneth A. Wells

We have all been in the position where conversations get out of control and go wrong. There are a number of things that we can all do to make sure that a conversation, at the very least on our part, is clear and productive, and does not degenerate into a form of verbal combat.

A key conversational skill is learning to listen. By this we mean learning to shut off our own internal voice (internal dialogue) when listening to what another person is saying. Which one of the following voices have you sensed yourself engaging in when listening to others (or perhaps you’ve never noticed):

  • The voice of the critic, judge, or parent.
  • The voice of the know-it-all -“Yeah, I know what you are talking about”.
  • The voice of impatience wanting to finish the other person’s sentence or wanting to ‘jump in’ with your own story.
  • The voice of boredom or distraction (“I wonder whether I’ve left the front door unlocked, hmmm … I wonder if he ever cleans his teeth”)
  • Perhaps even the voice of the ‘active listener’[1] – wanting to paraphrase and summarize what you are hearing – and feed it back.

When we talk to ourselves inside our heads, the mind races and the logic of the communication starts to slip away. Many valuable ideas get lost in the storm of internal inquiry because we cease to take on new information at the very moment we create our own internal judgements.

Attempt to suspend all notions of being certain about what you hear while you are listening to another person. Suspend your certainty about your own observations, what you think you know, or even believe you understand. The problem with certainty is that once you know something ‘for certain’ you shut yourself off from fresh thinking. Your brain creates a label,[2] it has identified and categorised the input. Therefore you are certain about what is being said, so you do not need to take in any further input. But there cannot be real learning, or communication amongst those who are certain about everything.

Once you have suspended certainty and shut off, or at least, slowed down your internal dialogue, you begin to allow yourself the opportunity to notice what the other person is communicating. Flexibility in communication is about being open to all thoughts, ideas, and information without reference to what you think “is”.

As a preliminary to developing this listening skill, it is often necessary to become aware of our habitual listening patterns. Start out with listening to your listening. By this we mean taking the spectator position (see Perceptual Positions) on your own thought patterns. Become aware of your thoughts, judgements, and observations during a conversation. At first, this may seem difficult, but with practice it is possible to notice our habitual thought patterns during conversation.

Once we are more tuned into our own habitual patterns and can spot them starting, we are in a better position to shut them off, slow them down, interrupt them, and re-focus attention on what is happening out there with the other person.

Listening….. some OTHER ideas to ponder


Listening is important because . . .

  • Since the rise of the radio and the development of television, the spoken word has regained much of its lost stature (Bryant).
  • Being listened to means we are taken seriously, our ideas and feelings are known, and, ultimately, what we have to say matters (Nichols).
  • Generous listening enhances our own well-being and is the natural perspective of psychology, in which all human behaviour is seen as motivated by the agendas of the self (Nichols).
  • We learn our culture largely through listening; we learn to think by listening; we learn to love by listening; we learn about ourselves by listening (Robinson).
  • Being listened to spells the difference between feeling accepted and feeing isolated (Nichols).
  • In our society, listening is essential to the development and survival of the individual (Robinson).
  • Most people will not really listen or pay attention to your point of view until they become convinced you have heard and appreciate theirs (Nichols).


10 Irritating Listening Habits


Do you ever find yourself falling doing the following?

  1. Interrupting the speaker.
  2. Not looking at the speaker.
  3. Rushing the speaker and making him feel that he’s wasting the listener’s time. “Yes Yes . .”   “Yes Yes …”  while you are speaking
  4. Showing interest in something other than the conversation.
  5. Getting ahead of the speaker and finishing her thoughts.
  6. Not responding to the speaker’s requests.
  7. Saying, “Yes, but . . .,” as if the listener has made up his mind.
  8. Topping the speaker’s story with “That reminds me. . .” or “That’s nothing, let me tell you about. . .”
  9. Forgetting what was talked about previously.
  10. Asking too many questions about details.


Some interesting NUMBERS . . .


  • How much of what we know have we learned by listening? 85% (Shorpe)
  • Amount of the time we are distracted, preoccupied or forgetful? 75% (Hunsaker)
  • How much we usually recall immediately after we listen to someone talk? 50% (Robinson)
  • Amount of time we spend listening? 45% (Robinson)
  • How much we remember of what we hear? 20% (Shorpe)
  • Amount of us who have had formal educational experience with listening? less than 2% (Gregg)


Some other numbers on listening


We listen at 125-250 words per minute, but think at 1000-30,000 words per minute.

Number of business studies that indicate that listening is a top skill needed for success in business? more than 35 (HighGain, Inc.)


Some Poor Listening Habits


Avoid these habits:

  • Calling the subject uninteresting
  • Criticizing the speaker &/or delivery
  • Getting over-stimulated
  • Listening only for facts (bottom line)
  • Taking notes or outlining everything
  • Faking attention
  • Tolerating or creating distractions
  • Tuning out difficult material
  • Letting emotional words block the message
  • Wasting the time difference between speed of speech and speed of thought
  • Correcting grammar
  • Finishing the sentence
  • “Uh Huh, Yes, yes, yes,”  . . . . . . .  rudely behaving as though you know what they are saying before they say it or hurrying up the speaker.


A joke on communication


On the chosen day, the Pope & Rabbi Moishe  sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand & showed three fingers.  Rabbi Moishe looked back & raised one  finger.

Next, the Pope waved his finger around his head. Rabbi  Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat. The Pope then brought out a communion wafer & a chalice of wine.  Rabbi Moishe pulled out an apple.

With that, the Pope stood up & declared that he was beaten, that Rabbi Moishe was too clever, & that the Jews could  stay.

Later, the Cardinals met with the Pope, asking what had happened.

The Pope said, “First, I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity.

He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there  is still only one God common to both our beliefs.

Then, I waved my  finger to show him that God was all around us.

He responded by pointing to the ground to show that God was also right here with us.

I pulled out the wine & wafer to show that  God absolves us of all our sins.

He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had  me beaten & I couldn’t continue.”


Meanwhile the Jewish community  gathered around Rabbi Moishe.

“How did you win the debate?” they  asked.

“I haven’t a clue,” said Moishe. “First he said to me that we had three days to get out of Italy, so I gave him the finger.”

Then he  tells me that the whole country would be cleared of Jews & I said to him, we’re staying right here.”

“And then what?”  asked a woman.

“Who knows?” said Moishe, “He took out his lunch, so I  took out mine.”

[1] Active Listening – a structured form of listening and responding that focuses on reflecting back what you are hearing and often feeding back the state you notice the other person in. Particularly emphasises paraphrasing and summarizing. It is important to note that while this form of listening might be useful skill in certain contexts, we are suggesting that even this form of internal dialogue be suspended while you develop skill in the listening state we are advocating for here.

[2] The brain naturally wants to label or create closure on what is out there in the environment so that it can respond appropriately to threats. Once it has created closure, it tends to look for other un-labelled potential threats in the environment.

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