The On Being Project, a non-profit media organization, does an exquisite job defining what they call “Generous Listening” in the above quote. Their definition applies perfectly to what we mean when we mention effective listening, the most effective of which we will refer to as:
But the exciting truth is that listening is a skill that can be learned! While teaching listening isn’t a common part of our education, some careers require people to become trained in listening. Professional listeners include therapists, FBI hostage negotiators, judges, lawyers, successful sales people, and diplomats. These folks get serious practice, too: it can take 7-9 years to become a therapist, 6+ to be a hostage negotiator, and 8+ to become a judge.
That isn’t to say there aren’t people in these professions who have sub-par listening skills. The vast majority of us are poor listeners (are you? Take this quiz or this feedback questionnaire to find out).
It requires a significant deal of introspective work and practice to improve your listening by a remarkable degree. Better Listening, and thus access to its host of life-enriching consequences, is cultivated through dedicated practice.
Better Listening is a recipe of the qualities and factors essential to enhancing your listening skills from common to refined. While you can find practices and exercises to cultivate and apply these on this page, it is by no means an overnight process. The art of listening is a life-long practice that entails effort within the realms of attention, intention, awareness, curiosity, regulation, and authenticity. The effort necessary to engage in these qualities may be more demanding at first and lessen over time as the skills become more second nature.
So, you’ve been warned; listening isn’t easy at first, and yet, it is profoundly worthwhile.
The Tenets of Better Listening: Noticing, Being, and Doing
“The first duty of love is to listen.” – Paul Tillich, German Philosopher
If you’ve perused the Factors of Listening page, you’ll be familiar with the basic ingredients in any recipe for the various Listening Styles. The Style you end up with depends on how much and in which way you apply the ingredients of attention, intention, awareness, authenticity, curiosity, and regulation. In Better Listening (which includes the Empathic and Deep Listening Styles) these elements are employed with great potency. How they are applied is illustrated in the following diagram, and explained in the sections to follow.
You’ll notice that at the center of the diagram, beneath listening, we’ve included Love in parentheses. Better Listening is an exercise in and natural expression of Love. It becomes an act of Love through its mixture of understanding, compassion, vulnerability, and equanimity. Let’s break it down.
Better Listening occurs by Noticing what is occurring within the self, the other, and the environment.
Ex. Noticing that you feel nervous, noticing that the other person is avoiding eye contact and fidgeting, or keeping track of how many distractions are happening around you.
This noticing combined with Being vulnerable, sincere, and compassionate, enables curiosity.
Ex. Choosing to be honest about how you aren’t emotionally available for a conversation that has come up, choosing to be open to what the other person has to offer.
All the while, listening in this manner necessitates engaging with our conversation partner, which we refer to as the Doing of Better Listening. Doing overlaps with Noticing to facilitate self-regulation, and overlaps with Being to empower our integrity.
Ex. Reflecting back what we understood them to have said or taking a few deep breaths when we start to feel agitated.
These components of Noticing, Being, and Doing are interdependent. Strength in one area enhances strengths in the others.
For example, someone who has cultivated deep awareness of themselves will be more capable of regulating their emotions. This will then help them stay open to the person they are listening to, and empower them to choose how to engage with them.
On the other hand, someone who isn’t willing to be vulnerable may behave insincerely, which will cause the quality of their engagement to falter, and likely indicates that they are more concerned with what they notice in themselves (and prefer to avoid) than what they notice in the person they are listening to.
With such interdependence, the Factors are exercised in various overlapping areas of the model. Teasing them apart into completely independent variables undermines the holistic nature of Better Listening.
Think of it like a stew: the ingredients transform when they’ve been cooked together for a significant period of time. In the nourishing stew of Better Listening, the individual Factors alchemize into something entirely new.
To better understand how these ingredients show up as love when engaging in this manner of listening, the following sections will parse them together for you:
- What Does Doing Better Listening Look Like?
- “Being Love” through Presence
- Have A Loving Agenda through Curiosity and Intention
- How to Apply Sincerity: Practicing Authenticity, Integrity, and Regulation
What Does Doing Better Listening Look Like?
- The listener is facing the speaker and making eye contact. They are fully engaged and not doing other side tasks.
- The listener is asking questions about what the speaker is sharing, encouraging them to elaborate by asking insightful questions.
- Evidenced in this image by a mirror, but in real life by words and tone, the listener reflects back what they hear the speaker sharing to confirm understanding and validate their experience.
- Shown in this image as an utterance but equally demonstrated in real life in other signs of affection, concern, or care, the listener offers empathic support and connects to the emotion of the speaker’s message.
- The listener is relaxed and in an open posture similar to the speaker.
- The listener is noticing some inner peacefulness and monitoring their own reactions to what the speaker is sharing while not being distracted by them.
Here you can see some hallmarks of how someone who is Doing Better Listening may show up. Doing is how we behave and participate in conversation (and the high quality of Doing defined by Better Listening characterizes what we call Elevated Conversation).
While it’s easier to see the Doing than it is to see the Being or Noticing, the quality of Doing is a sign of the Being and Noticing happening within a Listener. In other words, If someone isn’t Doing Better Listening very well, they may also not be Being and Noticing well either (like in the above illustration where the listener is not showing any of the six visual signs of Better Listening).
You’ve likely listened to someone in the Better Listening way before, or experienced the gift of being listened to this way by someone else. Engaging with others like this creates a special container that fosters the essential factors of Listening and enables them to self-perpetuate.
Therefore engrossing ourselves in the art of listening not only requires curiosity, attention, awareness, and intention, but it also creates it!
As we’ve touched on several times, listening is not a passive activity. It is not only sitting beside someone in rapturous attention, absorbing everything they have to say. If someone did this to you during a conversation, it might feel like pouring your heart out to a mute but sentient sponge. Talking to a wall is not as satisfying or enriching as engaging in conversation with a dynamic human being. This dynamic nature, the participatory aspect of listening, is inextricable. Yes, listening involves witnessing someone, but it equally demands active contribution to the conversation: Doing.
A word of warning, however: focusing on the Doing aspect of Better Listening is best left as the last step in the process of learning to listen well.
In order for our techniques to be effective, they must be sincere. This genuineness is born from the Noticing and Being elements. By dedicating yourself to those, the Doing will come naturally.
A more in-depth guide to the Doing side of Better Listening is provided on our Elevated Conversation page, and a host of these techniques (powerful questions, conversation guides, tips, etc) in printable form on our Practice & Exercises page. We recommend first cultivating self-awareness through Your Storied Life, Freedom, Presence, and 100% Responsibility in order to develop the sincerity that will empower your Doing.
This being said, don’t let where you’re at now stop you from beginning to incorporate various listening techniques into your daily life. And, keep in mind that the Doing applied without the strength of Being or Noticing will fall short in impact and effectiveness.
Try It Out
In the “Fly On The Wall” activity you will watch and analyze a series of movie clips. The prompts that follow the clips will help you reflect on behaviors and patterns in conversation and their impact.
Try it in public:
Next time you’re out and about, take a moment to observe the conversations taking place around you (but be subtle and don’t freak people out, ok?). Consider the following as you observe:
- In which conversations do the people look most engaged? What specifically are they doing that makes you think this?
- In which conversations do the people look less engaged? What specifically are they doing that makes you think this?
- Do any of the conversations seem emotional? How is the listener responding to the speaker?
- Do any of the people involved seem like better or worse listeners than the others? What specifically are they doing that makes you think this?
“Being Love” through Presence
“Listening is an act of love. Giving time is an act of deep caring. Giving time means pausing, and allowing the silence to hold emerging thoughts… The core of listening is generosity, empathy, graciousness, and patience… At root, listening is an act of falling in love–with ourselves, with the people we are listening to.” James Navé, Poet
Presence is a state of consciousness characterized by reflective awareness and heightened consciousness of the present moment. It is accompanied by feelings of awe, connection, unity, vividness, love, and meaning.
Presence, just as Love, is another way of understanding the practice of listening.
All three arts (Presence, Love, and Listening) incorporate conscious ways of being, noticing, and doing in the world that are, at their heart, powered by the same principles and expressed in similar manners.
|Being||Sincere, Open, Responsible, Curious||Open, Curious, Compassionate, Equanimous||Open and Receptive to current experience|
|Doing||Asking questions, Affirming experience and emotion, Seeking clarity, Making eye contact, Mono-tasking, Self-regulating||Providing support, Showing affection, Listening, Committing, Self-regulating||Conscious acceptance of the present moment, Applying attention, Deconstructing conditioning|
|Noticing||Internal thoughts, feelings, beliefs, ideas. Features of the speaker such as what, how and why they are expressing. Contextual factors of the conversation or situation and environment||Internal experience, Features of the beloved, Contextual factors of the relationship||Witnessing our internal and external experiences and becoming conscious of conditioning|
Not conventionally described or compared to Love, Presence is a phenomenon that is commonly relegated to the land of meditators or those seeking transcendent religious experience. Despite this, it is accessible to all of us when sought with some dedication. The foundation for this practice lies in attention and awareness, which qualify for all three realms of Noticing, Doing, and Being.
We talked a bit about both on the Factors page, and in Better Listening, attention is strategically applied in conjunction with awareness in a way that creates Presence. Let’s review how they work with a pinch more detail!
Attention is a process that directs energy and information flow, which is facilitated by awareness. It could be imagined as a direct beam of light. You are shining the light (attention) on an object. Attention is not the same as thinking about something- it is the active focus on a stimulus. It can only point to one thing at a time.
Attention “…is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. …It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” – William James “The Principles of Psychology”
Awareness in this metaphor is the source of the light, but knows of the other things that are not currently being lit up. For our purposes, awareness is our general alertness and our ability to both know things and to know that we know things. More often than not, our awareness is passive and automatic. However, in listening with Presence, awareness becomes intentional.
In Better Listening we must be aware of and attend to many things at once without being distracted by any of them.
We have to give our undivided attention to the practice of listening. Ironically, there are a panoply of things to direct our attention towards while listening: we can focus on the speaker’s tone, word choice, the dynamic between us and them, the environmental influences, their emotion, our internal reactions, etc. There is a rich world of events to notice! At the center of them all is the speaker.
The artistry of Better Listening lies in our ability to shift between all of these wells of information by being conscious (read: aware) of their existence and intentionally noticing (but not being completely distracted by!) them.
The “wells” of information to shift between include the Self, the Other, and the Context or Environment.
“When we think of listening, we think of focusing on others in order to hear them. But the more I learned about it, the more apparent it became that so much of effective listening is actually being aware of yourself: your own tendencies, habitual responses, what your body language may be communicating to others, the topics that hit on a tender spot and draw out an emotional response from you, even the environments, company, or time of day that can make your listening powers stronger or weaker.” —Ximena Vengoechea, Author of “Listen Like You Mean It”
When operating from presence (the heightened, intentional state of awareness that can hold within it the cornucopia of available information) we still prioritize applying attention directly to the speaker. When we become distracted while listening it’s often because we are primarily attending to something other than the speaker (often our own thoughts or the task we’re engaged in) and the process of interpreting and understanding them.
Doing that is OK and totally normal. There are many things to keep track of and pivoting between them takes time (and the right conditions) to master. Gently remind yourself to come back while keeping track of the other information you’re collecting.
“Wells” of information you can be aware of and attend to while listening:
|Information (Mind Body Aspects)||Examples||Information||Examples||Information||Examples|
|Thoughts (Beliefs, Biases, Filters, Judgments, Ideas, Interpretations, Memories)||“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” ✦ “This is taking too long.” ✦ “That’s just like the time Harry and I got in a fight…” ✦ “This is such a good conversation.” ✦ “He doesn’t care about my feelings.” ✦ Etc.||Content of message||Their words: “I think we should take a break.” ✦ “You never hang out with me.”||Relationship and Power Dynamics||Boss and Employee ✦ Wealth disparity ✦ Equality / Friends ✦ Someone wants something from the other ✦ Age disparity ✦ Expertise disparity ✦ Respect or not ✦ Level of Familiarity ✦ Level of trust ✦ Etc.|
|Emotions||Sadness ✦ Happiness ✦ Irritation ✦ Anxiety ✦ Peacefulness ✦ Excitement ✦ Shame ✦ Fear ✦ Anger ✦ Desire ✦ Stoic ✦ Etc.||Meaning of Message||Possible meaning: “I’m overwhelmed and need more time alone.” ✦ “I want to spend more time with you.”||Time Context||Ample/Limited time to discuss ✦ Unexpected/planned conversation ✦ Time of day/night ✦ Etc.|
|Physical Sensations||An ache in my back ✦ Exhaustion ✦ Headache ✦ Pleasure ✦ Comfort ✦ Cold/Hot ✦ Over-caffeinated ✦ Alert ✦ Etc.||Physical Behavior/ Body Language||Fidgeting ✦ Looking away ✦ Eye contact ✦ Relaxed or stiff posture ✦ Etc||Environmental Influences||Noisy/Quiet ✦ Public/ Private ✦ Who is present ✦ Busy / Not ✦ Formal / Casual ✦ Etc.|
|Perceptions||Noticing that I am perceiving (Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch) ✦ I can hear the speaker, the road, my breathing, the rain ✦ I can smell car fumes, coffee, petrichor ✦ Etc.||Emotions||Sadness ✦ Happiness ✦ Irritation ✦ Anxiety ✦ Peacefulness ✦ Excitement ✦ Shame ✦ Fear ✦ Anger ✦ Desire ✦ Stoic ✦ Etc.||Prescribed Social Narratives (Cultural norms and roles)||Social Pressure to be Extroverted / Polite /Reverent/ Playful /Serious / Efficient ✦Expectations on what should happen next: On a date ✦ In a business deal ✦ At a party ✦ In a serious relationship ✦ Etc|
|Speech Pattern: Tone, Cadence, Breathrate||Quick speech ✦ Long pauses ✦ Volume change ✦ Playful/angry tone ✦ Etc.|
|Possible influences: background or life context||Raised in poverty/wealth ✦ Level of education ✦ Belief system ✦ Experience with love ✦ Trauma ✦ Etc…|
Your awareness around each of these things can grow in depth and detail the more you practice attending to them. For example, while learning to become aware of your emotions you could start to notice when you don’t feel good, but it may take some time before you are able to distinguish your discomfort specifically as anxiety around a fear of failure.
Examples of Presence in Better Listening
Scenario: Consoling someone at a funeral
With Presence: The sorrow of your friend is palpable to you. You are experiencing your own grief simultaneously, and in this moment you feel open to and highly conscious of their experience. When you ask them with a look how it’s going, they respond quietly and gruffly, “I’m fine.” Although they aren’t using words to relay their experience, you can tell from their body language that they are in mild shock and a bit dissociated. You touch their shoulder briefly to remind them of your support without sympathizing. You take a deep breath to steady your energy and accept where they are at and where you are at in this specific moment without a need to change it.
Without Presence: Your friend must be upset but they haven’t spoken in a few hours despite being beside you the whole funeral. You’re worried that engaging them will lead to you having to carry their emotional weight as well as your own, so you distract yourself by criticizing the eulogy in your mind. You’re not fully conscious that you’re avoiding theirs and your own emotional experience, as you’re just trying to get through the day.
Scenario: Asking for a raise
With Presence: You notice you’re nervous to request a raise and take a few deep breaths to regulate before your meeting. In your boss’s office, despite the playful small talk, you notice she is a bit distracted and disheveled. She has sighed (as if to catch her breath) twice since you came in. She asks you what you were hoping to discuss. Despite wanting to dive into asking for a raise, you decide to ask her if it is a good time to talk since you notice she seems frazzled. She seems relieved as you ask and let’s you know she is having some chaotic events occurring with her family that she is managing and is a bit all over the place. You let her know that the conversation you want to have is an important one for you and would love to reschedule it for a time when she feels she can be totally present. Your boss happily agrees. You leave feeling like your relationship and trust is strengthened and feel at peace with having the conversation a little later.
Without Presence: You’re flustered and nervous when you walk into your boss’s office. You don’t notice how she is behaving and barrel into your raise request. She seems to be at a loss for words and you begin to get more anxious, wondering if she doesn’t believe you deserve it and that your request was way out of left field. Your boss takes a deep breath and tells you right now is not a good time to talk about it and asks to reschedule. You leave thinking you did something wrong and lose some confidence regarding the likelihood of getting the raise.
Scenario:Having a drink with a friend
With Presence: You and your friend are in good spirits. You’re catching up and laughing, feeling very engaged. After asking about his family you notice he gives a fairly vague answer and redirects attention to you. The conversation moves on and you begin to notice he is asking questions and keeping the conversation focused on you, gently side-stepping your questions of him. You notice you’re beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable, and wondering if he is genuinely interested or trying to avoid your attention. You take a deep breath and survey the dynamic without attachment. You allow yourself to notice his behavior without personalizing it further and decide to give him the benefit of the doubt. When it feels appropriate you gently point out your noticings regarding the conversation dynamic and ask if something is up. He hesitantly shares that he is having some challenges with his mother which he is still processing and isn’t ready to talk further.
Without Presence: You and your friend seem to be having a wonderful time. You do not notice when the imbalance in the conversation begins or notice your friends’ role. You begin to become self-conscious that you are talking too much and hogging the attention. You miss the opportunity to ask about the dynamic or your friend’s behavior and do not end up learning that he is going through something currently. Instead, you come away from the hangout feeling embarrassed that you talked too much and with little insight.
As you can see from the above examples, being fully present in each situation impacts several elements of the experience: vividness, depth of connection, amount of information available, sensitivity, and self-regulation possible. Cultivating Presence is a practice that can enrich many dimensions of your life beyond listening. You can learn more about it here.
Curiosity and Intention: Having A Loving Agenda
“Genuine listening means suspending memory, desire, and judgment- and, for a few moments at least, existing for the other person.” – Michael P. Nichols “The Lost Art of Listening”
Curiosity and Intention are conscious choices we make in Better Listening, and they look a very particular way: our
Curiosity shows up as an unfettered genuine interest, eagerness to learn, and a humble, non-judgmental openness to what is present; while our main intention becomes to deeply understand, connect with, and support the person we are conversing with.
In this way, Curiosity and Intention operate within both the realms of Being and Doing, and combine to form a “loving agenda.”
You Can Execute Your Loving Agenda with Empathy that is Empowered by Curiosity!
At the basis of the loving agenda to deeply understand, connect with, and support the speaker is empathy.
Compassionate Communication is an approach to engaging with others in an empathic and loving way based on understanding feelings and needs. Check out the Compassion section to learn about communication techniques that help you deeply connect to and understand where someone is coming from.
Compassionate empathy connects with the emotional and nuanced experience of the speaker and helps us interpret their messages more accurately. Psychology Today defines it as “the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person.” Without the ability to interpret what is being communicated from the speaker’s perspective, we are incapable of fully understanding their message.
Deeply connecting to another person’s experience may elicit an emotional response from us. In compassionate empathy, it is imperative that we stay grounded and not become consumed by our own emotional experience (we talk more about sympathy versus empathy here and talk about strategies for setting boundaries while listening here). Our own experience is valid and equally important — and the art lies in recognizing what is going on for us without being overwhelmed by it.
At our best, we’re able to recognize the emotional experience of the other by recognizing that experience within ourselves, regulating, and then staying focused on the speaker.
You’re a high schooler riding the bus to school. When you get on there aren’t any seats available but you notice a kid with headphones staring out the window that has the space next to them blocked with their backpack. You get their attention and ask if you can sit there. They glare at you and silently move the bag onto their lap and continue staring out the window as you sit down. You notice feeling rejected and worried about imposing while also angry at this kid’s apparent entitlement. You take a moment to wonder what is going on for them and recognize you can empathize with feeling shy or anti-social. You remember how challenging it was to be a new kid at this school (not that they necessarily are new) and feeling shut off and alone from others. You choose not to get consumed by the memory of being alone or angry, or the feelings of worry from the current interaction. You choose to tune into compassion for their experience, not personalize their behavior, and relax into your seat.
Your sister hates her job. She wants to quit but feels totally trapped, and she calls you to blow off steam about it regularly. You relate very deeply to her experience, getting riled up about how much you hate your own job and want to quit as well. When listening to her talk about her experiences you tend to get pretty upset about your own. You feel deeply for her struggle but also find yourself distracted by your own anger. In order to be compassionate towards her situation you decide to take a short walk to regulate and acknowledge what it coming up for you, then choose to set a boundary with her regarding your chats, setting up a different way to offer her support than a ‘blowing off steam’ session that does not seem to help either of you long term.
Your friend is trying to quit smoking. They explain how they can’t stop thinking about smoking and feel extreme shame when they give in to the impulse to smoke. While you have never tried to quit smoking, you recognize you’ve struggled in a similar way when trying to eat less junk food. You know how hard it can be to break a habit and ask him how you can be supportive. You can empathize with his experience without being fully distracted by your own.
Some empathic skills used in the above examples include:
- Paying attention to your inner reactions and emotional climate
- Choosing to regulate
- Giving the person you are witnessing the benefit of the doubt by practicing curiosity regarding their experience. This curiosity is a form of compassion!
- Choosing to anchor to the present moment and not get stuck in reverie
- Setting boundaries
Empathically engaging with someone is integral to Better Listening. It employs curiosity to enable us to see beyond surface-level emotions and expressions to something more potent underneath.
For example, if someone is expressing anger or frustration, there is often something more vulnerable beneath those emotions like sadness, disappointment, or fear. Better Listening employs sophisticated empathic understanding to reframe and reflect back what issues may be underneath initial expressions and gain greater clarity.
These examples dive past initial responses to the softer emotions underneath:
Sheryl’s friend is being stiff, quiet, and snarky in their interactions. When Sheryl asks what’s going on with her friend, she tells her she is an asshole for telling their other friend about something she’d shared in private.
Instead of reacting with anger and shock (which is what comes up within her), Sheryl notes her personal feelings and takes a breath. She reflects back to her friend a reframe, “Ok. You’re upset that information you wanted to stay between us did not, and you feel like your trust was broken. Is that accurate?”
Sheryl recognizes that behind her friend’s anger is probably fear of being judged by others for whatever was shared as well as a sadness and insecurity around an unspoken expectation that did not get met. She can channel her understanding and compassion for this experience to connect more deeply with her friend instead of launching instantly into a fight.
Clara’s kids are playing loudly while she is trying to get some work done. She loses her patience and shouts at them to chill out and be respectful.
While her children are likely too young to understand the layers of Clara’s emotional experience, we can assess the situation empathically and imagine that Clara might have a work deadline that is stressing her out. Her angry reaction to her children is not necessarily due to her being mad at them, but rather a result of her frustration around her progress and a stress about her performance at work. Underneath that frustration and stress could be another layer of fear of not meeting expectations or getting the promotion she hopes for and feels she needs in order to support her children.
Amar regularly uses aggression against other guys that interact with his girlfriend. Typically deemed a bully with a bad attitude, it can be challenging to empathize with Amar when it appears that he is plain mean. While challenging his girlfriend, she empathizes with his reaction (and challenges him to other behaviors) as she knows him very well. She recognizes that under his aggressive tendencies is a fear of being abandoned that results in extreme jealousy. (While she can be compassionate towards his experience and behavior, this does not mean that she should tolerate it.)
The above examples demonstrate empathy and curiosity in action. Like the first example, these reframes could be offered back to someone in conversation to clarify and deepen understanding. The tool to do this is called “RRV,” or Reflect, Reframe, and Validate.
- Reflect the emotion: “You’re feeling frustrated/sad/scared/angry…”
- Reframe the story to an empowering one: “…that someone didn’t understand or mind your boundaries…”
- Validate the experience: “…and that is reasonable.”
(This is only a brief example, though. You can learn more about RRV and how to use it here.)
A result of engaging with others with genuine curiosity and compassion can be listening that is ‘generative’.
This is listening that has the power to transform us. Often practiced by strong leaders, coaches or inspiring friends, it is listening that keeps in mind a person’s full potential. Generative listening pays keen attention to unknowns and arising possibilities. When listening in this way, you may feel energized and excited, as if something is shifting and feel deeply connected to yourself.
Better Listening, when executed with sincerity and mastery, naturally elucidates and clarifies our unknowns, making both subtle and profound conscious change possible.
Generative listening can feel like listening to ideas in a group, feeling totally present and attuned to the people in the room and the dynamics while sensing that something new is being created.
Generative listening can feel like listening to your grandma talk about something she was passionate about in her youth and realizing she could experience it again… you personally feel excitement and rising energy as you hear potential for them to enjoy themselves and experience change.
Keep in mind, however:
While our primary intention in Better Listening is the empathic bundle of deep understanding, connection, and support, we probably have sub-agendas.
How could we not? We engage with countless people throughout our lives in a wide variety of social contexts and with different degrees of intimacy! This includes people we may interact with while standing in line, a new coworker, our closest sibling, a customer service representative over the phone, or perhaps our waiter at dinner.
Think about the last time you ordered dinner at a restaurant. Your agenda was to get the waiter to bring you the exact meal you want to consume. Engaging empathically with the waiter was most likely not high on your to-do list. However, if you were to have given them your full presence you might have noticed a bit of nervousness in them and wondered if they were new. This knowledge could have contextualized how you interacted with them and communicated your needs. Through this sensitivity, you would have been better able to support them in their unease- and perhaps increased the likelihood of getting your order right!
Sub-agendas could include:
- trying to learn something from someone
- get their/give them direction
- express our feelings
- ask for their help
- play with them
- arrange an agreement
- plan something together
- and on ad nauseum!
There is a distinct difference between approaching the world primarily from a transactional agenda (trying to get something from a person or situation) and approaching the world primarily from an empathic agenda (seeking to understand and connect).
The reality of staying alive and living in society standardizes a need for transactional interactions. However, by approaching those with whom we interact principally with empathy, we enable not only more fluid transactions but more fulfilling experiences and relationships!
We’re rarely perfect at empathically engaging with others. There are a host of barriers that prevent us from being perfect at it all the time.
- We’ve got our own emotions to sort through first
- Sometimes we’re distracted by the environment or our to do list
- We’re in a rush and “don’t have time”
- We don’t want to sink into feelings sometimes when they come up
- Pretty much all the barriers listed in Messy Listening. (Go check it out!)
That being said, it is certainly still worth aiming for (like aiming for the moon) because all of our effort is valuable in the field of listening.
Think about it along a spectrum of not trying at all or trying a little bit. What situation is preferable in the absence of expertise?
|Scenario||No Empathic Engagement||Novice Empathic Engagement||Better Empathic Engagement|
|A student is struggling with their math homework.||The teacher notices they haven’t been getting many problems right, and walks past them while they’re working. The teacher knows a couple of students aren’t ‘getting it’ and will repeat the process on the board.||When the teacher passes the student who is struggling to get the answer right, they notice the student’s closed down body language and that their pencil isn’t writing anymore. The teacher realizes the student is starting to shut down and offers to help.||When the teacher notices the student is struggling and recalls how that has felt for them in other life situations. They pause and reflect what they notice, “Hey I noticed you’ve taken a little break. How is the problem going?” The student explains that they don’t ‘get it’, and the teacher reframes that the student “doesn’t get it yet- and it’s normal to feel challenged with it.” The teacher asks what part the student needs help with.|
|A teenage girl walking down the hall in high school gets teased by two of her male friends who notice she is grimacing.||They comment, “Hey stink face!” They believe they’re being playful but it doesn’t land with her.||When the girl walks down the hall her guy friends notice her expression and check-in, “Hey something wrong Amelia?”||When the guys notice Amelia’s sour expression they recognize the emotion of embarrassment. They are able to touch base with that feeling within themselves before approaching her and reflecting what they notice and offering support.|
In order to create the shared reality of empathic understanding, we need to learn how to navigate the challenging forces that limit our ability to connect. We naturally react to conflict in ways that limit our ability to empathize.
Read on to see how curiosity impacts this ability! Plus, you can learn more about how to navigate these situations on our page about Conversation.
Curiosity is an Intellectual and Compassionate Virtue
“The faculty to think objectively is reason; the emotional attitude behind reason is that of humility. To be objective, to use one’s reason, is possible only if one has achieved an attitude of humility if one has emerged from the dreams of omniscience and omnipotence which one has as a child. Love, being dependent on the relative absence of narcissism, requires the development of humility, objectivity and reason.
I must try to see the difference between my picture of a person and his behavior, as it is narcissistically distorted, and the person’s reality as it exists regardless of my interests, needs, and fears.” – Erich Fromm, The Art of Listening
Erich Fromm, a German psychologist, is advocating for intellectual virtue in the practice of listening. He asserts that we must be aware of our filters in order to see as objectively as possible. An indispensable dimension of the curiosity demanded by Better Listening, intellectual humility is essentially the willingness to change your mind.
Pepperdine University characterized it with four traits(Krumrei-Mancuso & Rouse 2016):
- Having respect for other viewpoints
- Not being intellectually overconfident,
- Separating one’s ego from one’s intellect, and
- The willingness to revise one’s own viewpoint.
Respect for other people as intelligent, capable agents in their lives is intrinsic to approaching others with this humbleness.
Intellectual humility alone, however, doesn’t satisfy the multi-dimensional nature of the virtue of curiosity.
The other ingredient is what the Big 5 Personality Assessment terms “openness to experience.” When someone scores high on openness, it indicates that they both enjoy and pursue trying new things. So someone who is curious in terms of Better Listening is both willing to be wrong about something and interested in finding out. This means that an experienced cook who is high in intellectual humility and openness would not only be excited to try the new technique a novice wants to show them, but would also be willing to admit it is better than what they’ve been doing for years (if that was the case)!
Journalist and speaker Shane Snow developed an Intellectual Humility Assessment you can check out here.
Intellectual humility is a key ingredient in exercising compassion, which is especially necessary when conflict rears its ugly head in our relationships. Our ability to be open to other people’s truths as valid and meaningful enables us to take them seriously and validate their experience.
Listening to and validating someone’s experience is a compassionate, loving act that enables deeper connection. The opposite effect is righteousness. Being attached to knowing what is true and unwilling to consider any truth in the other person’s experience can alienate them (see “The Righteous”).
Let’s imagine you’re a professional psychologist who feels confident that you can figure people out… often better than they can figure themselves out. This assumption would initially make sense as you’ve put in years of academic and practical study to make this true, and you’ve seen your intuitions proven multiple times, right?
Unfortunately, very few people you want to help would likely build trust with a psychologist like this. At first, they might feel comforted by your confidence, but eventually, they would notice the lack of curiosity in your approach to working with them. Being told what their issues are and why they have them instead of being asked with openness to discovery could damage their faith in your ability to accurately assess them. Being a psychologist that makes assumptions like these would likely inhibit your ability to connect with those you seek to help, and certainly limit your ability to learn.
For the most part, people do not enjoy “being figured out.” Not only does this communicate that they are seen as having low free will in determining their identity and lives, it also cuts off the opportunity for being seen as having the potential to change. Human beings are dynamic creatures and acknowledging them as such supports their growth. When we engage with others assuming we know better than them, we cut off our potential for gaining deeper understanding through curiosity.
Most of us want to be capable of growth– of becoming better over time. Related to this is wanting to be seen as such by others. Therefore, approaching others with curiosity as to how they may show up at any given moment is a loving act.
It respectfully and generously allows others to be complex, dynamic, and capable beings.
It is easy to fall into the trap of our assumptions and not be curious towards others.
The following are some mindset tricks for helping you shift your perception in conversation.
- Challenge your worldview by seeing those you disagree with as opportunities for growth and learning
- See others as your teachers
- Consider what has happened in their lives to shape their experience and beliefs
- See them as the hero of their own drama
How to Apply Sincerity: Practicing Authenticity, Integrity, and Regulation
Empowered by a foundation of Presence, we can consciously choose how to engage with ourselves and the world.
Self-awareness through Noticing prepares us to see what is true for us and provides the opportunity to embrace that truth and live it.
Noticing we feel resistance when a family member asks for support with something we’ve helped them with several times could be a signal for us to examine– is a boundary being crossed now, or is something else coming up for us? If we recognize a boundary IS being crossed, the next step is to show up authentically in the relationship and speak for our needs while empathizing with theirs.
Being sincere simultaneously with ourselves and those we engage with enables Better Listening.
Sincerity is a quality that cannot be faked. It is in direct opposition to any falsehood. This means trying to show sincerity is a paradox. One can only show sincerity by being sincere (otherwise we fall into the category of Cosmetic or Persuasive Listening, not Deep or Empathic).
Being sincere in Better Listening is exercised through the practices of Authenticity, Integrity, and Regulation.
Authenticity requires first that we are self-aware, and secondly that we are willing to be vulnerable and honest.
It’s a challenge to be authentic when you don’t truly understand the contexts influencing you in any given moment.
We have to notice our emotions and be willing to admit them!
We have to acknowledge our biases and be willing to share them!
This is serious personal development work! Work that we can engage with our entire lives. It is hard enough, on one hand, to be authentic with ourselves, let alone be authentic with other people. It insists on the courage to accept ourselves.
|Scenario||Lack of Authenticity||Authentic with Self||Authentic with Other|
|Your partner asks to go on a boat trip during your vacation. You know how much it means to them– and you’re terrified to go out on the open water. You want to challenge yourself and be brave, but you’re also feeling a strong resistance and beginning to feel resentful that your partner isn’t acknowledging how big a deal it is that you said you would go.||You pretend as if it is fine and try to ignore your fear and resentment. You don’t want to be afraid of something as silly as open water! Nor do you want to be a petty person who expects their partner to save them. You find yourself being a bit snippy with your partner although they do not know why.||You acknowledge that you’re afraid and not honoring your experience which is leading to projecting onto your partner. You consciously choose to go on the boat trip and challenge yourself, not blaming your partner for information they do not have about how you feel. You acknowledge that you are responsible for your experience and validate your own fear, resistance, and judgment as understandable.||You have recognized what is going on within you and choose to share this with your partner without putting blame or responsibility on them. You tell them that going on this boat trip is scary for you and you’re still willing to do it and challenge yourself because you can see it is important to them. You request that they acknowledge that this is a big deal for you and be available to hold your hand on the trip.|
|Your daughter is refusing to finish her dinner that you spent an hour and a half cooking. You’re feeling angry.||You want to be a “good parent” who doesn’t exhibit anger to their children. You softly encourage your child to eat and when they continue to refuse you take their plate away in silence.||You acknowledge that your anger is reasonable- you had a long day and worked hard on that meal and was hoping she would really like it. You also know she will be a total grump in the morning if she doesn’t eat and recognize the urgency and stress you feel to avoid that scenario. You acknowledge your belief that a good parent would be able to convince their kid to eat and wouldn’t be as frustrated as you currently feel, and see how this belief is also adding a sense of shame to your experience.||You tell your daughter that you’re feeling frustrated and need to take a break from dinner. When she asks why, you are honest and explain that you are frustrated she isn’t eating her meal- because it took a long time to make and you have a fear that when she doesn’t eat it means you’re not parenting well. You tell her you’re worried about tomorrow morning as well. You remind her that how you’re feeling isn’t her fault, and ask her to play out what will happen when she does not eat.|
|Your friend gave you a hand-built mug for your birthday. When they visit you a year later they notice it lives in the dog food bag and is used to scoop Fido’s supper. They are silent and change the subject but you are suddenly beginning to feel very hot.||You power through the discomfort and follow the change in topic.||What do you think being authentic with yourself would look like here?||What would being authentic with our friend look like in this situation?|
Cultivating authenticity is premised on becoming aware of your contexts and how they’re influencing you. Contexts can include:
- Upbringing and background
- Habits and behavior
|Scenario: Your coworker has given you feedback that they would like to work alone more often, rather than as a team.|
|Context||How Its Influencing You||Being Authentic About It|
|You assumed they were enjoying the process of working together.||You’re shocked by their request and taken off guard.||“I’m a little taken off guard.”|
|Your first reaction is that they are rejecting you and feel embarrassed and sad.||You aren’t sure what to say and become very stiff and physically uncomfortable. You have a desire to leave.||“I feel embarrassed and worried this is due to something I did. Was there something I did to contribute to this decision?”|
|You were often told off for “being too much” as a kid.||You begin to feel insecure that this is why they want to work alone.||You acknowledge to yourself your insecurities are coming up for you.|
|You believe that work is always better when collaborated on.||You feel resistant to working apart because you worry both of your work will suffer.||You acknowledge you have a belief that is influencing you to be resistant to working alone.|
|You tend to apologize in situations like this and blame yourself, assuming you did something wrong.||You’re ready to apologize and try to ‘fix’ the situation as fast as possible.||You notice the urge to apologize, and take a deep breath.|
|You judge that they must think they’re better than you.||You feel a bit angry with them and your trust in them is decreased.||You acknowledge that your trust has decreased and you feel angry. You realize that this is an understandable reaction to have.|
Integrity is close to but distinct from authenticity. While being authentic involves being honest and candid regarding what is true for us, having integrity means being willing to act in alignment with our values.
This means that if we are authentically enraged by our co-worker Bethany forgetting to prepare for our joint presentation, we still choose to engage with her empathically because we value compassion.
In order to stay integrous to our higher values, we practice self-regulation and show up to our interaction with her in the best way we can manage. As someone committed to the virtues of Better Listening, an authentic and integrous reaction to Bethany after the presentation might look like this:
- Bethany: I was so overwhelmed this weekend I just didn’t have time. You seem really angry with me.
- You: Yeah. To be perfectly honest, I actually am really upset right now. Can we talk about this after I’ve calmed down? If we talk about it now I might not behave or speak in a way that I think is fair.
- (Later after taking a short walk)
- You: I heard you say that you were overwhelmed this weekend, what’s going on?
- Bethany: Well I’m currently taking care of my sick father who has been in and out of the nursing home. On top of that, I had the kids this weekend and my oldest daughter got into some trouble. Things just seem to be blowing up everywhere around me and I’m struggling to stay on top of all of it at once.
- You: Dang. That really does sound like a lot. I see how that would have influenced your ability to be prepared for the meeting. As far as where I stand, I personally have a high need for reliability in my work environment because my lifestyle depends on it. When someone shows up unprepared it feels like a threat to my security because it compromises my work performance. I’m wondering if you’re willing to talk about ways I or anyone else can support you and the nature of our implicit agreements around our working relationship.
If you had only engaged authentically with Bethany in the above example, you probably would have exploded on her when she noted that you looked angry. However, because you value curiosity, presence, and sincerity, you chose to regulate by going on a walk and then return to the conversation when you were capable of empathetically connecting to her. This enabled you not only to understand her situation but to connect with her on a deeper level without alienating her and damaging the relationship. You still managed to be authentic by admitting your feelings and underlying fears that triggered them. Being vulnerable with Bethany was made possible by your dedicated practice of self-awareness.
Having integrity in Better Listening necessitates that you value both authenticity and compassion.
Being loving is at the intersection of these: to be loving towards our own truth and towards the truth of another.
Valuing both compassion and authenticity enables us to behave in ways that align with our best self AND offers consideration to other beings. If you only valued one or the other you could end up letting your authentic feelings drive your behaviors in uncompassionate ways or behave dishonestly with yourself in favor of others (also known as martyring).
In order to honor our authentic experience and practice compassion, we need to learn how to self-regulate.
The personified listening style of the Volcano is someone who doesn’t practice self-regulation while engaging with others.
They react to situations and conversations that stir them up with unexamined or unfiltered emotions. As we explain on the Factors of Listening page, Regulation is our ability to address and manage our emotional reactions.
To summarize what we go into in more detail there:
Our brains are wired to help us recognize and react to threats in our lives to optimize our survival. Unfortunately, our brains can’t tell the difference between serious life threats like our ancestors used to experience regularly and modern stressors. Therefore, the ancient, survival part of our brain (the amygdala) often takes over when we get upset and inhibits us from thinking rationally. We must be able to think rationally and creatively in order to empathize with and be curious towards others. This means that when we get upset we’re playing without a deck of cards. In order to restock the deck, we need to regulate ourselves and take control back from the amygdala.
When we become adept at regulating ourselves, we empower our higher-level functions of empathy, curiosity, and creativity. This leads to better understanding, more connections, and more ease in problem-solving.
The way we behave in response to stressful situations is something we condition ourselves to do. The more we have engaged in a pattern of behavior, the more hard-wired we are to engage in that behavior in the future. This means that if you are a highly reactive person (react like the Volcano regularly), you’ve likely spent a life-time of allowing your emotions to direct your behavior in stressful situations.
Luckily, neural plasticity exists, and we can condition ourselves to regulate!
Neural plasticity is our brain’s ability to create new neural pathways. When we engage in new behaviors, we create new pathways. When we engage in them repeatedly, we strengthen those pathways and it becomes easier and easier to use them. This means it may be a challenge to start a new behavior, but the more we reinforce it the easier it will become. It all starts with awareness!
I notice myself criticizing my skin every time I look in the mirror. It’s been automatic for most of my life; I look at my reflection and think, “Damn my skin looks gross.” I imagine other people feeling pity for me, and then I feel ashamed and my mood takes a slight hit. Recognizing this pattern, I decide to counter the thought. Every time I look in the mirror, I consciously remind myself, “You are beautiful. You are not your skin.” I continue to repeat this thought over several weeks. When I have my negative thought pattern, I recognize it as a thought, forgive myself, and let it go. Eventually, my automatic thought when looking in a mirror is to remind myself that I am beautiful, and I do not walk away feeling worse.
I want to start journaling daily to increase my self-awareness. In order to do so I decide on a trigger (waking up) and use that to automatically signal it is time to write. Every day, as soon as I wake up, I sit down to write for fifteen minutes immediately. The first week takes a lot of effort and I even skip two days. After two weeks, however, it feels almost effortless to start and I no longer need my willpower to force me to prioritize it.
When I talk to my parents I find myself feeling criticized and become defensive. I recognize that this reactivity does not help resolve the underlying issues in our relationship or help deepen our understanding of one another. I decide to consciously practice regulating in conversations with them by noticing when I need to take a few minutes (or more) away and asking for it. The first few times this happens I find myself more tempted to defend myself and afraid of them not knowing they’ve crossed a boundary. It takes me a little while to ask for time and come back to the conversation, afraid they will misinterpret it. Eventually, they understand why I need to do it and it becomes more natural and comfortable for me to do. I end up being able to come back with compassion and have a calmer, more productive conversation with them.
Using mindfulness, perspective and presence to become aware of our reactive nature is essential to choosing differently. This can be hard for us at first when it is a foreign practice. However, when we persist in intending to stay conscious of our emotions and behaviors, we can empower ourselves to change them.
For a while, it may not feel possible to choose differently, especially if we have very strong neural pathways to react instead of respond.
The Conscious Leadership Group suggests committing to the practice of asking yourself where you’re coming from at all times. If you do this consistently when you’re regulated, the habit itself can bleed over into how you engage when you’re unregulated, helping you make the choice to regulate!
Self-Regulation Skills: Why They Are Fundamental
This video from the Committee for Children explains in further detail how and why self-regulation works and is essential to performing at our best. While framed around child learning and behavior, it is equally applicable to adults!
Why Mindfulness Is a Superpower: An Animation
In this animation from Happify, author and news anchor Dan Harris explains how mindfulness empowers us to choose how to respond in triggering situations. By tuning into our physical and mental experiences, we enable ourselves to choose ways of being that are aligned with compassion.
There is a wide range of ways to regulate ourselves and they all involve disengaging from the thought patterns that are triggering our reaction. Once we recognize that we are unregulated, we can then choose to engage in a regulation activity. This could look like taking space, doing a breathing exercise, going for a walk or a run around the block, playing a short puzzle game on your phone, meditating briefly, or counting slowly to fifty. The list goes on!
- Body scanning
- Visualize the emotional energy dissipating
- Four Square Breathing
- 5 deep breaths
- Physical Activity
- Throw and catch a ball
- Walk/ Run
- Push-ups, jumping jacks
- Lay down and put your legs up the wall
- Mental Distraction/Embodiment
- Play a short game
- Listen to a grounding song you like
- Sensations: Name 5 things you see, 4 you hear, 3 you smell, 2 you feel, and 1 you taste.
- Find something beautiful or fragrant to indulge in
- Count backward from 50
- Watch something soothing (a fire, the ocean tide, fish swimming, etc)
- Mutual Regulation (done with help from a friend)
- Hug someone
- Breathing exercise with someone
- Sitting in conscious silence with someone else
As you may have picked up, regulation is diverse and different things work for different people. As you begin practicing regulation you will likely need to experiment to find what works for you.
|Scenario||Listening with Regulation||Listening without Regulation|
|You and your partner are having a light hearted conversation that suddenly turns south when they make a playful comment that calls back a mistake you made the prior week. You instantly interpret this as a condescending tease and feel angry.||Recognizing your anger, you let your partner know that their comment triggered you. Before processing it, you’d like to regulate together with a hug, something you have previously chosen together as a strategy for regulating. The hug affirms your connection and allows you to calm a bit before responding to your feelings and the situation.||You start to shut down a bit and your partner notices. They feel triggered by your emotional reaction and the atmosphere of your conversation shifts to distance and hostility. You end up bickering about their comment.|
|You’ve been very busy with work lately and have accidentally left the kitchen messy several days in a row now. Your roommate wants to talk about it.||You notice you feel defensive and guilty and decide to take a moment to locate it in your body. It is in your throat and shoulders. During the chat you reveal that you are feeling anxious and guilty about the chat (while not using that reveal to blame your roommate). You ask if you can come back to the conversation tomorrow at 4 so you can better listen when you’re regulated. The next day you are more calm and ready to hear and empathize with their experience without feeling defensive and victimized.||You get defensive about how you haven’t had time and wish they would understand and be more compassionate. You’re normally great about it, why can’t they cut you a little slack when things are tough at work? You spend the whole conversation thinking of things they do that you don’t like, and in the end agree to whatever they ask for so the conversation will end. You walk away feeling disconnected from them and resentful.|
|A friend you’ve been trying to get to hangout keeps telling you they’re busy. Then you run into them at a concert they said they weren’t able to go to. You instantly feel angry and think they’ve been rejecting and avoiding you.||When you see then, you take four deep and slow breaths. You do a mental exercise of the importance of the situation, zooming out to envision the entire planet and all its people for perspective. You commit to approaching your friend with curiosity and to offering yourself compassion for feeling angry and rejected. You recognize that this relationship may not be serving to pursue.||You march up to them with a forced smile and say hello in a “Got ya” tone. They dodge responsibility and you are flooded with adrenaline. You are a bit snippy with them and walk off brooding. The interaction ends up making you more disconnected and escalating your anger. It was a missed opportunity for compassion, forgiveness, and curiosity.|
Creating the space to regulate can be a difficult thing to do for a variety of reasons. It may not feel appropriate to go stick your legs up the wall when you have a bad interaction with the Starbucks barista. It may feel like you’re complicating matters when there is pressure to make a decision and you need to take a few minutes to go for a short walk. This is why having several different skills that work for you and developing the courage to ask for what you need is invaluable to regulating. In the above examples, you can see how revealing your state, making requests, or regulating silently within all have their place in different situations.
When we choose not to regulate, we end up engaging in the spectrum of Messy Listening, the extreme of which is an inability to listen at all (The Volcano). When we’re Messy Listening, we’re not picking up on all of the information available to us. When we don’t have the option to take some time or space, doing our best at regulating and hopefully returning to the conversation later is our best option.
When we make the time to regulate we’re able to honor both our authentic feelings and behave in a manner that is integrous with our highest values because we have the capacity to use parts of our brains that enable reason, empathy, and creativity.
Through a combination of these three factors, we wind up being truly sincere: with ourselves and towards others.
This sincerity is a palpable quality in another person!
It helps foster trust and depth of connection, and it encourages Better Listening all around.
“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” -Dean Jackson
Better Listening weaves together excellence in Doing, Being, and Noticing to craft a range of profound understanding, connection, and transformation.
It is an act of love through presence that takes dedicated practice to cultivate.
It may be one of the worthiest pursuits we can have in our efforts to be loving people.
While this page explored the principles behind Better Listening in more depth, you can find practical tools and practices on our Practice & Exercises page. But perhaps don’t run off just yet! There is more nuance to be gained in the realm of Listening from diving into our section on Elevated Conversation, where you’ll learn more about how the application of these principles through particular skills can have profound effects.
- Elizabeth J. Krumrei-Mancuso & Steven V. Rouse (2016) The Development and Validation of the Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale, Journal of Personality Assessment, 98:2, 209-221, DOI: 10.1080/00223891.2015.1068174