How to Really Listen to Someone Even When You Don’t Care

Practical tips from my journalist experience

Photo by Anna Vander Stel on Unsplash

In my previous lifetime, I was a journalist. I interviewed hundreds of people, from all walks of life, from businessmen to politicians, from artists to philanthropists.

I found some of my interviewees fascinating and could have conversations for hours with them. Others were just uninteresting to me, but I could still make the interview go on if needed. But, most importantly, I always made my interviewees feel that I was paying attention to them.

After I decided to leave communications, I did an intensive programming boot camp, where we had team building activities occasionally. One day, we did an exercise that made us all feel vulnerable: we sat in a circle and, one at a time, we would turn our back on the others. Then, everybody would say what they thought about us.

When my turn came, what my colleagues mentioned the most was “when you talk to her, she really listens”. I was touched. And I also realize that what they were saying was not random. My past as a journalist helps me in that but, mostly, I listen because I respect anyone who takes the time and energy to talk to me.

These are some of the techniques I use. Feel free to take them and apply them to your life, for an improved communication experience with anyone that interacts with you.

1. Ask Questions

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, a conversation is…

“an oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas”.

The keyword here is exchange. For this exchange to happen, the sentiments, observations, opinions, and ideas need to flow in both directions. The best way to make your interlocutor say something is to ask something. Finding relevant questions to ask can be hard but it becomes much easier if you truly pay attention to what is being told to you.

For example, if someone is telling you about their first job, and say something like “It was not my dream job, but it ended up being good because my colleagues were nice”, you can come up with follow-up questions such as “What was your dream job?”, “Why did you accept that job if it wasn’t really what you were looking for?”, “What made your colleagues so nice?”, “Do you still keep in touch with those colleagues?”.

Sometimes, these questions will lead to dead ends but, often, they will just uncover hidden conversation paths that you can use to keep the conversation going.

2. Provide Feedback

Incredible as it may sound, what one person says, and what the other hears is not the same. Probably, you have had conversations where you thought you understood the message, only to later find out that there was some sort of miscommunication and both people involved were referring to different things.

This can be fatal to good and healthy communication. But there is a way to fix it: constantly provide feedback. Imagine this situation: a friend is telling you about a fight with his girlfriend and says “she doesn’t like it when I hang out with my mates all weekend, and that pisses me off”. Before commenting on it, make sure you are both on the same page. Say something like “From what I understand, you don’t like it when she controls your time, is that so?” and ask questions that provide clarification, like “why exactly does that piss you off?”.

It might seem like a basic thing to do, but it is essential in making sure that you are both speaking the same language.

3. Listen With Your Whole Body

You shouldn’t listen only with your ears, but with your whole body. Body language plays a major role in face-to-face communication, with some studies pointing out that it accounts for up to 80% of all communication.

There are several techniques you can use to improve your body language in a conversation, for example:

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Smile, smile, smile
  • Avoid pursing your lips
  • Don’t roll your eyes
  • Nod frequently
  • Use your hands for gestures
  • Don’t cross your arms — it gives the impression that you are closed to what you are being told

4. Practice Empathy

As humans, we are programmed to judge others. Even though most of us have been taught not to judge people based on their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, studies show that it is nearly impossible for this to happen.

Not only do we judge based on these general characteristics of someone’s identity, but we also judge what people tell us and how they tell us about something. We judge their morality, sociability, and competence.

We might be wired to judge, but we should still fight it because it has negative consequences for us and for any conversation we hold. Judging narrows our views on the world and undermines any honest connection with another human being.

What you should do instead is practice empathy. Accept what others tell you without trying to fit it into your preconceived ideas. Listen first, with an open mind, always. This doesn’t mean you are not entitled to your opinions, you are. But if someone is telling you about their coming out story and you are homophobic, don’t listen based on your beliefs. Just listen to their words and even if you don’t agree, be kind.

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

— Brad Meltzer

Takeaway

Here is the magical part: even if you are not interested in what someone tells you, practicing these techniques might incite curiosity in you. Likely, you will end up more involved in the conversation than you expected, and you will create a genuine interest in what other people tell you.

The world is not black and white. People, things, and conversations are not either interesting or not interesting. They are everything in between and, most importantly, they are what you make of them. If you are not committed to a conversation, you might have the world’s most interesting person in front of you and still be bored with their words.

Everyone has a story to tell, and everything can be exciting. It is so easy to make zero efforts and blame others for being dull. But it is so much more interesting to create real and meaningful interactions. It is all up to you.

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