I went for dinner recently with one of my best friends. She's a ray of sunshine and I love spending time with her. She is, however, such a kind and supportive listener that I often find myself talking a lot in her company - and more and more I worry that our conversations are too one-sided.
This makes me very uncomfortable, as a bugbear of mine is people who only want to speak about themselves. The ones whose eyes glaze over when someone else gets a chance to talk; people who ask questions only to bring the conversation back round to themselves, and who spend the limited time that they are silent thinking of what they will say next. It's draining and frustrating, and we can walk away from such situations feeling used or unvalued. But here I am, perhaps committing the same conversational faux pas myself, with someone I care about very much.
For this reason, I'm setting myself a challenge; I'm dedicating the next 7 days to learning how to listen. It may sound silly - most of us have been listening our entire lives - but I’m not sure that many of us are so great at it. Indeed, modern society almost actively encourages the opposite. In the age of the extrovert and at a time when social media reigns over all, the loudest (and often, the most antagonistic) voices seem to get the most airtime.
I don’t want my loved ones to feel like they are in competition with me - I want them to feel supported and understood. I’m also aware that whenever I am speaking, I am learning nothing. At a time when the world is so full of “alternative facts”, “fake news” and extreme divisions in opinion, perhaps it’s time we truly started listening to one another and attempting to bridge these divides.
Wednesday 20th October 2021:
On day one, I began with an assessment of my current strengths and weaknesses. I found an interesting Listening Skills Test from Psychology Today. I completed the assessment as truthfully as possible. I didn’t pay for the analysis, so I couldn't access the full report, but I was able to see where I needed the most improvement: patience. I got 40/100 on this section- wow!
Thursday 21st October 2021:
After my shocking result yesterday, I decided today I should learn about what constitutes a good listener, and try to incorporate some of the necessary techniques. Again, Psychology Today had some great resources. I found this piece, "The Art of Listening", to be particularly helpful.
The article is a heartfelt tribute by psychologist Dr David Kyle Bond to a good friend (Dr Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba) who sadly passed in 2018. What is striking is how meaningful it was for David to have a friend like Jennifer, who listened so intently and empathically to others at all times. Indeed, Jennifer’s skill in this area is what her friend missed most about her, and what inspired him to become a better listener himself. He details how in the piece.
I’m going to try and be mindful of this advice when entering into conversation with someone going forward. Bullet point 2 is especially salient for me… I often finish someone’s sentence, not to hurry them up or stop them from talking (at least not consciously), but usually out of enthusiasm - I want to demonstrate that I am tuned in to what they are saying. Perhaps I have been inadvertently doing the opposite.
Friday 22nd October 2021:
This weekend I headed back to Yorkshire with my partner, to celebrate my mum’s birthday. We had a 2.5 hour train journey from London, and I wanted to use the opportunity to practice some of the skills I’ve been looking into. My partner currently has some family issues to work through, so it was the perfect time to be present and supportive for him.
Usually, we tend to pass the majority of journeys like this reading or perhaps listening to a podcast, with just a few words of conversation here and there. This time, however, we talked much of the way … which I took as an indication that my partner needed to talk and was (hopefully) having that need met.
As he spoke, I tried my best to listen and understand what he was saying and how he was feeling about it. I didn’t let my mind wander to solutions or think about how I would respond to him, and I bit my tongue instead of finishing his sentences… which was hard. It felt good to listen and give him space to vent, and I walked away from the journey with a better understanding of how he was feeling about the situation.
Saturday 23rd - Sunday 24th October 2021:
This weekend was a busy one and involved mainly group settings, where, whilst listening skills continue to be vital, it was more difficult to practise some of the skills I’ve been learning about due to the highly interactive nature of those conversations. On reflection, perhaps that’s simply how I justified it to myself. The dynamic in my immediate family environment can be lots of back and forth joking when we are all together - so the quick and witty reactions are celebrated. Was I reverting to this familiar pattern? Maybe.
This said, on Sunday my partner and I cooked Sunday lunch for the family. There were 7 of us around the table and, at times, there was a real battle for control of the conversation. I was very mindful during that time to be curious and to pay attention to each of my grandparents when they were talking. I didn’t speak a whole lot during the conversation - to be honest, there wasn’t much chance - but I also recognised that, particularly in the case of my Nanna who lives alone, this was perhaps one of few opportunities for them to talk to an attentive ear.
Monday 25th October 2021:
Today I reached out to my friend - the one who kicked off this whole thing - to ask for her thoughts and advice about listening. I asked her how she became a good listener and whether this was a conscious process. She sent me a long and lovely voice note with some reflections, which I’ll try to sum up.
Apparently, a few things stood out to her. As a kid, she remembers there being very little conversation around the dinner table at home. She told me she was then fascinated at her friends’ houses when she realised that some families had a much more open dialogue in this setting, and as a result, whenever she was at someone else’s house she began listening attentively out of interest.
More recently, the process of being a good listener became more conscious for her. As someone who for a while struggled with social anxiety, my friend found she had to actively work not to zone out during conversations. During that period, she felt extremely anxious when talking to people and often struggled to concentrate as a result. Using techniques she learnt from CBT, she was able to control the zoning out using a combination of:
Thankfully, my friend no longer feels the same anxiety in social situations, but she continues to reflect on her listening skills to this day. Recently, she's noticed a couple of techniques that have further helped her to be present for the person with whom she is speaking:
- She always puts her phone out of sight - ideally in another room if possible, but at the very least, in her bag.
- She tries her very best not to fiddle when someone else is talking. Like me, she has a habit of biting the skin around her nails sometimes, but she noticed the off-putting effect this can have on people.
- She maintains eye contact with whoever she is speaking with (if they are comfortable with that) and tries not to be distracted by anything else.
Whatever she is doing is working … she’s a fantastic listener and I hope one day soon to return the favour.
Tuesday 26th October 2021:
It's the final day of the challenge, but certainly not of my goal to become a better listener - the more I'm learning, the keener I am to keep improving.
I found myself a little stressed this morning, so decided to get out for a quick walk to get back into a calmer headspace. I took advantage of this break to listen to a podcast I’d been eying up for a few days: 4 Therapist Secrets to Being a Great Listener.
The podcast was really informative and only 16 minutes long, so I’d definitely recommend having a listen. I will, however, sum up what I learned and how I can apply that knowledge going forward. The host is a therapist herself and she was keen to share her tips on listening - a skill that is, as she notes, needed and craved by all humans.
Interestingly, this podcast opened up with a short story that really resonated with me, as it could very easily have been describing my partner’s and my own listening styles. My partner (like the boyfriend in the anecdote) is a patient and kind listener, and never interrupts when someone is telling him something … which is great. However, I sometimes find myself getting frustrated with him, as I feel like I get very little (if any) feedback when talking to him about a problem.
To me, the lack of acknowledgement makes me feel like he has zoned out or is not very receptive to what I am saying. I want to know he understands and empathises with me. I want to be able to explore the issue further, and that requires some level of engagement from him. To my partner, his very act of listening and being a blank slate for me to throw my ideas at is providing that support.
On the other hand, the story also has a best friend character whose listening style mirrors my own. The friend is engaged as a listener and offers lots of feedback to show she is listening and understands. The problem, however, is that the friend also offers a lot of advice, like myself. I don’t like to see friends upset or struggling with a situation, so it feels natural for me to want to help. As the host quite rightly points out, however, most people don’t need someone else to solve their problems for them. All they need is a sympathetic ear and a space to be able to vent and work through these problems for themselves.
Lots of food for thought at the end of the week, and I feel like I’m only just getting started. I’m going to keep working on being curious, being dedicated to reaching an understanding, and to providing a supportive space for my friends and family when they need a listening ear.
I hope this challenge might help you too - listening is such a vital skill to possess and such a lovely thing to receive.
Alex Grunnill works for Stillpoint, and is based in London, UK. She is passionate about psychology, travelling, sustainability and linguistics. She hopes eventually to train as a psychotherapist. You can find her on Linked In.