How can I be a better listener?

Listening is a skill. And not many possess it. A good listener gives room for the other person to be who they are and express what they need to, without imposing one’s own story on it. It must be kept in mind that this is not passive listening – that is – one doesn’t just listen without active interest in the narrative. It calls for appropriate interjections at the right time to affirm what the speaker is feeling or ask questions that would help the speaker think of the topic in hand in different ways. It is a fine balance of listening and speaking.

If you look at most social conversations around us – they are perfunctory. People are talking and the listener just nods along and then quickly shifts the focus of the conversation back to themselves. This is known as conversational narcissism. Let’s take an example:

Anita: “I was at that market and it was so crowded that I could hardly breathe”
Maggie : “Yeah it’s insane. I was there last Sunday and it was so bad that an ant couldn’t squeeze through”

or

Ben : “Man, I’ve had a tough week at work. Insane amount of work. And such a peevish boss”
Mike : “You’ve not seen my boss. He is a monster”

These examples are so typical and common in our culture that they appear normal. But in both cases, you notice that the respondent pulls the conversation to their point of view. An appropriate response would have been to ask questions that would encourage the speaker to go on with their narrative.
For instance, Maggie : “What time did you go there?”. Or, Mike : “Why what’s wrong with him?”

The art of good listening is to always keep the focus on the speaker. And to slowly encourage the narrative by asking gentle, exploratory questions. Care must be taken not to seem overly curious about some personal matter. You must make the other person comfortable.

How can we begin to do this?

Firstly, start to come out of this “I, me, mine” syndrome. Most of us are caught up in our own egoic stories – how our lives are so tough – how bold and courageous our exploits were – how daring we were to tell our boss off – and so on. Most of us crave attention – and most likely – we never got this as children. Our parents were bossy, controlling and even perhaps narcissists. They did not give us the beautiful space of being listened to. This may be because they were busy, juggling multiple jobs and so on. Yet, the fact remains that we were not listened to, we were not paid attention to.

This lack of attention in childhood, perpetuates itself as the seeking of attention in our teens and continues into our adult lives. As teens, we rebel – as a way to seek an independent identity so that we stand out, and eventually get the attention we so badly desire. We may join a punk band. Or we may colour our hair in violent shades of orange. We may indulge in scarring our bodies with tattoos. These are all symptoms of desperately wanting to get attention.

As we move into becoming adults, invariably the rebellious phase dies out. The novelty of the flaming hair, or the large tattoo wanes – and we still yearn for love and attention. Now, for some, this goes into the need for intimate relationships – where they remain insecurely attached. For others it transmutes itself into something very ugly – the need for power. Such among us, seek out powerful positions of leaderships – head of organizations, community groups or worst – politics. It must be remembered that there is nothing inherently wrong in being a leader. See if leadership comes as a natural expression of your abilities or does it come from a lack – a desperate need to prove oneself in society by assuming power over others. Leadership, is given. Never taken.

We can begin to heal this lack of attention. We do this by listening to ourselves. Listen to the child in us who is crying out for dad to be more present. Use a journal to document these feelings. Spend time, ever so often, in solitude – listening to the innermost scars. This begins the process of healing. We must be connected to ourselves – our feelings, our disappointments, things we are grateful for and things we missed in life. Only when we take this attitude of being kind and empathetic towards ourselves, can we extend the same behavior naturally towards others.

They key word is naturally. We don’t pretend. Because we are ever so curious about our own inner lives, we naturally become curious about the lives of others. We ask clarificatory questions, because they have relevance to our lives. They possess great lessons for our own inner lives. This is the mark of true honesty.

Overly logical people – are people who brush aside the need to listen to themselves. For this appears to make them weak. They are afraid of a collapse. Unfortunately, this will increase the restlessness in their lives and makes it nearly impossible for them to be good listeners, let alone compassionate with others. For such people, true intimacy and friendship cannot exist. Think of all the power hungry leaders throughout history. These megalomaniacs craved attention and therefore dominated people. They had no compassion for others, nor true friendship. If only, their parents had listened to them, you can imagine what horrors could have been averted.

Therefore, the root of good listening lies in the being empathetic towards yourself. Spend adequate time each day to listen to your own highs and lows. Understand them. Resolve them on an emotional level. This is the only way we can move towards becoming better human beings to the people around us. And this is the birth of true social change.

Button Roses. Bangalore. 2021.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing. I would be interested to know how to share personal feelings and experiences, whilst being a good listener? After all, a conversation, normally, is two way. How can we listen and empathise whilst also sharing our own perspective?

    1. Absolutely. That’s a very relevant point you raise. A good conversation is one where there is a balance between listening and speaking. When both speakers are sensitive to each other, a beautiful harmony is experienced. When you sense that the other has some important expression with an emotional overtone, you give in and gently allow the expression. Eventually, the other will slowly turn the conversation back to you and elicit your views on it, which then, should give you the space to express yourself.
      As I said, it’s a beautiful art with no rules – only guided by a sensitivity to each other. Having said that, it is extremely rare. If you have it, cherish it deeply.

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