Seek first to understand – Just Listen

by Paul Goodchild on December 4, 2009

Doubts and Questions

If you don't understand, listen.

I’ve wrote before that I was re-reading the book How to win friends and influence people.  I’ve just finished it and found some of it contrasts with what I’ve come to understand and accept recently from writings such as Power of Now.

In this case however, the two writings complement one another – the importance of listening.

Shhhh! Be quiet.

…and that’s the message of the day.

It’s the message of the century!  Dale Carnegie emphasized many times throughout How to win friends and influence people that instead of engaging people with a view to talking about ourselves, we do far better to actively listen to people.  To become interested in who they are, their interests and what is important to them.

It sounds obvious, right?  Of course it is, but someone who is willing to dedicate his or her time to just listen to you is a rare find indeed.  I’m not saying people don’t listen, but I feel that there is a desperate lack of conscious willingness to put aside the swirl of thoughts, emotions and concerns we have for our ourselves, and dedicate it to absorbing that of someone else.

Stephen Covey, in his brilliant book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, outlined this as Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

It’s exactly the same thing – put your brain on pause for a moment and listen to your partner.  Actively hear what is being said, understand their position entirely, and then respond as and when appropriate.

Many people when they are in a discussion are seeking a venue to talk about themselves.  We want people to listen to us, to hear about our problems and concerns, while celebrating with us our achievements.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but as with everything there is a balance to be sought and I think in general we don’t find it.

Can you think back to a conversation you had recently where the other person dominated throughout, speaking entirely about themselves and what was on their mind?  You might have had a thing or two to share, but there never seemed to be an opportunity to raise them.  You weren’t asked or given your space.

Perhaps when you did have room to share, you wanted to flesh it out a bit more, but they never took a real interest in what you had to say.  It’s because they weren’t properly listening.

It’s a horrible feeling, but we do it on others all the time.

I have experienced this and in-part, it’s down to a personality trait where I’m slow to volunteer personal information unless I’m prodded and poked.  When I am asked, I will typically skim over areas of concern and assume that if they want to know more or allow me space to express it, they will press further.

I haven’t found the right balance since I often come away feeling I wish I had shared a bit more.

All that said however, the dynamics of a relationship play a large role and singling out a particular conversation isn’t necessarily fair either.  I’ve had many conversations with friends that have been all about me, for hours, only then to have the balance re-addressed next time where they have the chance to take centre stage.

It’s about the balance over the long term as well.

So why is it so difficult for us to listen?

If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a million times – the ability to listen is a great skill.  We can all talk, no doubt about that.

We can all get our point across and we might even win an argument here or there, but finding someone that actually listens to us without trying to fix, convert, convince, or cure us is a challenge.

So why is it so hard for us to listen?  This is where ‘The Power of Now’ meets Dale Carnegie.

First off, what does it actually mean to listen?  For me it means to actively hear what is being said and to attempt, to the best of my ability, to really understand both the content being presented and also the position of the person saying it.

By that I mean, when someone talks to you, they are doing so with the sum of their experiences up until this point.  They hold a certain position or viewpoint attained as a consequence of events that they have acted in, witnessed, or heard about.  Furthermore, each new experience is added to the foundation upon which all future experiences are interpreted.

We often forget that there is more than 1 valid reality.  Our views, values, beliefs, all form part of our identity and so when that is challenged by someone else, we typically resist it.  Why?  Because to accept it at face value to is to by-definition invalidate who we are.

That may sound a little over the top, but that a moment to consider it.  Put another way:

If, our beliefs and values = our identify, & if someone else holds alternative beliefs and values

then, to accept them for who they are (their identity), is equivalent to stating that we are wrong, or invalid.

I.E. By equating our self-worth and identity with our beliefs, we are threatened when another person lives with different beliefs – we cannot accept them and so we don’t listen to them.

This helps to explain why don’t often listen as well as we should because to do so threatens our view of ourselves and our existence.  So how to get around it?

We have to realise that our beliefs, values and opinions are not actually who we are… the problem is that currently we identify with them and mistakenly believe that our thoughts represent our identity.

But you are not your mind.

You are much more magnificent than that!

Your mind is a fantastic tool for analyzing, problem solving, planning and much more, but it isn’t you.  The tendency of our minds to control our conscious through is there out of a habit of a lifetime… we have relied upon it to manage and categorize our experiences, but mistakenly we look to find our identity within the labels we use to organise and categorize them as well.

So being able to release our grip on our so-called egoic identity opens us up to hearing other people and their points of view.  Quietening our mind to listen becomes easier because you’re not looking to defend your position, but rather potentially grow from the exposure to alternative views.

A great source of examples is religion.  By labelling yourself as, say, ‘Christian’, you assign a whole stack of beliefs to your identity, and force yourself to be a person that perhaps you aren’t.  Alternatively you could say, ‘I believe in God’.  That’s something you do, not who you are.

The different is huge!

Living in a way that is open to change and a willingness to consider new points of view that comes our way as potentially valid, allows us to experiments.  We can try on other people’s lenses and see what they see.  We don’t have to like what we see when we do it, and we don’t have to accept something that fundamentally disagrees with us.

If what we see doesn’t fit with us – we simply remove the lens.  But at least we tried it on!

Internal chatter

Next time you have a conversation with somebody try to be aware of your own internal chatter.  Listen to what is being said to you, and watch as you begin to form judgments on the content and label their opinions and experiences.  Don’t try to resist either the chatter or your mind’s focus on topics other than that you’re supposed to be listening to… just observe it.  Once you can become conscious of the chatter, you will be able to release it and allow your complete attention to turn to whomever you’re talking with.  And it isn’t only talking… it’s all forms for communication.

It is difficult to practice listening to the chatter, but practice makes perfect.  =)

Please feel free to add your comments, and even better, share this post with other people you know using the links provided below e.g. Facebook.  You may also find related and similar articles in the ‘Related Posts’ section, also below. Thank you!

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