The Art of Deep Listening

one man listening deeply to another

Listening is thought of as a soft skill. Perhaps the softest of the soft skills. What’s the big deal, we might ask? We listen every day. It’s something we learned to do as children and it comes naturally. And yet, I’m going to suggest that it is not that easy.

It reminds me of the story of an older couple who were sitting around watching television. The husband decided to go out for a drive. “Do you want me to get anything while I’m out?” he asked.

“Yes. Get some ice cream. And while you are at it, get some topping. Oh, and bananas. I feel like a banana split. Do you want me to write that down?” his wife asked. “You know how you forget things.”

“Oh no,” the husband replied. “You don’t need to write it down, it’s just three things- ice cream, topping, and bananas. I can remember.”

He was gone about half an hour, came home, and put a sack on the counter.  She opened it and pulled out the contents- a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread. She looked at him in disgust and said, “You dummy! I told you I should have written it down. You forgot the bacon!”

Of course, we can laugh and forgive people as they get older, but the truth is that listening (including remembering) is not easy.

Think about it. There is a lot going on during communication. The speaker has to put into words not just information but often complex perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and intent. Then a listener has to decode this message through a filter of their own biases, attitudes, beliefs, feelings, motives, and life experiences. And to make it all the more complex, experts tell us that words make up only about 11% of the message in face-to-face communication. Tone of voice is about 35% of the message and body language as well as other contextual cues make up about 55%. Although exact percentages are hard to come by, it is true that there is simply a lot going on which can make listening challenging.

A Definition of Deep Listening

I define listening as suspending judgment and being fully present with another person to understand his or her experience or point of view. Deep listening involves hearing more than the words of the speaker but taps into the deeper meaning, unspoken needs, and feelings conveyed. It is something that is done with the heart as well as the mind.

So, by my definition, deep listening begins with accurately perceiving what others are saying. Message sent = message received. And, if simply transmitting information, that is enough.

However, there is often so much more going on. In order to listen well you have to understand that people want to be heard. They want to know that their opinions matter. They want our empathy and respect. Empathy is doing our best to experience the world from their point of view. Respect is offering due regard for their opinions, feelings, needs, and personhood.

It is by deep listening that we grant these gifts of empathy and respect. It is showing that we not only understand what they are saying but that we value and respect them as human beings. It is through this deep listening that we not only communicate information but affirm and support others as well as build and transform relationships.

Benefits of Deep Listening

There are a lot of benefits that come from deep listening. Through listening we:

Woman cupping hand to hear what is being said

  • Get into rapport with others
  • Build trust and goodwill
  • Deepen our understanding of others
  • Learn new ideas and perspectives
  • Make it safe for others to open up so we’re dealing with deep and not surface issues
  • Gain accurate information for better decision-making and problem-solving
  • Overcome friction and work through conflict
  • Develop shared understanding and consensus
  • Affirm, motivate, and empower others
  • Promote personal and relationship healing

I think it is fair to say that good listening is at the very heart of all healthy relationships. Good listening matters at home. Good listening matters on the job. It matters in your relationship with your friends and spouse or partner. It matters in your relationship with your children and grandchildren. It matters to those who work for you. It matters to your customers. It matters to your peers and co-workers. I’d say that it matters to most of the people around you.

Your ability to improve your listening skills can improve or even transform each of these relationships. People will notice that you are more present and attuned. They will be drawn to your influence and leadership. As you learn and practice this skill, you’ll build better relationships and achieve better results on the job and more satisfying and successful personal relationships. Period.

We are not Good Listeners

And yet, for the most part, we are not good listeners. We listen to respond rather than understand. Our minds think at about 400 words per minute and yet we speak only 125 words per minute which means we get distracted and fail to give others our full attention. We are quick to judge what they’re saying and agree or disagree, think we already know, or we give advice, fix problems, dismiss, or one-up other people rather than hear what they are really saying.

An Example

I want to share with you a story about an elderly widower living in assisted living. He recently broke his leg from a fall and was told he would need surgery and then go to a nursing home for rehabilitation.

Hearing this was very traumatic to this man. His immediate reaction was, “I don’t want surgery. Can’t it heal on its own? If they take me to a nursing home, I’ll never make it back to assisted living.” His caregivers reassured him that he’d be okay. “Don’t worry about this….” “Don’t worry about that….”  “You are going to be fine.” These were loving responses. However, they failed to respond to his deeper feelings and fears.

I would suggest that this gentleman needs someone to just listen. “It had to be so hard to learn that you’d broken your leg.” “Having a surgery is very frightening.” “It would be so hard if you couldn’t come back here.” Then listen…and listen…and let him talk.

Once he’s talked and been heard, he’ll be more open to influence and input. “This is why the surgery is important.” “You may have to go to a nursing home but the goal is to bring you back to assisted living.” “This is a tough thing you’re going through. How would you like to face it?”

Just Listen

I want to share a quote from about the power of listening from Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. She said,

“I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.  And especially if it’s given from the heart.  When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them.  Just take them in.  Listen to what they’re saying.  Care about it.  Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it.  Most of us don’t value ourselves or our love enough to know this.  It has taken me a long time to believe in the power of simply saying, “I’m so sorry,” when someone is in pain.  And meaning it.

“One of my patients told me that when she tried to tell her story people often interrupted to tell her that they once had something just like that happen to them.  Subtly her pain became a story about themselves.  Eventually she stopped talking to most people.  It was just too lonely.

“I have even learned to respond to someone crying by just listening.  In the old days I used to reach for the tissues, until I realized that passing a person a tissue may be just another way to shut them down, to take them out of their experience of sadness and grief.  Now I just listen. When they have cried all they need to cry, they find me there with them.

“This simple thing has not been that easy to learn.  I thought people listened only because they were too timid to speak or did not know the answer.  A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”

 New Course on Deep Listening

small boy listening through tin can

I’m now working on a new course entitled The Power of Deep Listening. I’m in the process of recording it and so it should be available in the next month. The purpose of the course is to teach you the power and art of listening. I do this through stories, examples, and case studies which show you what we do that works and what we do that does not work as we listen. You’ll come away knowing how to listen deeply and, thereby, support others and build healthier relationships.

 

By the way, if you’d like to be an early reviewer of the course on Udemy, I’ll give you a free enrollment. Just let me know.

A Parting Thought about Deep Listening

We often think that the most important influencing skill is being able to explain ourselves more eloquently or forcefully. However, I can tell you that the relationships I value most are those in which someone has listened and really heard me. These relationships have not only helped me feel validated and affirmed but given me the desire and courage to improve myself or go forward to accomplish important things.

Perhaps it is through our presence and willingness to listen deeply (rather than offering our wonderful advice) that we offer others one of the most precious gifts of all.

Please share your thoughts or experiences about the power of listening.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

4 responses to “The Art of Deep Listening”

  1. Ed Engel says:

    Nobody I know possesses this skill better than Roger Allen. He practices what he teaches at a very high level. Considering our current state of affairs, especially political, perhaps now is a better time than ever before at improving our skills of listening deeply. The old adage that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason comes to mind rather quickly.

  2. Connie A Anderson says:

    This is so true, Roger. Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give another. This article is outstanding and one I wish all could read.

  3. Judy Sabah says:

    What a wonderfully written article! I share the depth of this message and appreciate every word. Thank you!

  4. Joye Whitaker says:

    Roger, You were one of the first people to model this for me. Marci Zufelt is fantastic at it too. What a great article.I can do it but it does take patience, practice and focus. It is rewarding and sometimes frustrating. I wish this could be taught in church meetings, firesides, and other places.

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