The Power of Listening

Recently, I found myself speaking on the issue of “transformative listening.” I started speaking on this subject as part of a longer talk entitled “Lessons for the Living,” in which I tell of how my work as a public hospital hospice volunteer reshaped not only the way that I practiced law but my way of living life. It has become one of my most requested talks and I have delivered it throughout the state to lawyers, judges, business and real estate executives, government officials as well as community groups.

The long and the short of transformative listening is this – if you learn how to listen in an authentic and empathetic way, you will change your relationship with your speaker and yourself; access greater meaning; and become empowered to reach better outcomes. This is not a work practice. It is a life practice. It will enrich your professional encounters. But, more importantly, it will build and enhance sustainable relationships throughout your life.

Generally, how do we listen? The unfortunate answer is that, generally, we don’t. We are distracted. We are multitasking, which is a form of insult to the speaker. We listen to meet societal expectations. Think, for example, about how closely you attend to the words of a police officer writing you a ticket after you have made a “California” stop. We listen to confirm what we already know or to make distinctions. This is selective listening. Lawyers excel at this. We listen for agreement (“Yes, I know that.”) or for disagreement (“No, that’s not right”). But, in all events, we are not attending to the entirety of the communication. We are either hyper-focused on some particular aspect or generally disengaged.

What message do you believe is being conveyed to the speaker by our actions? And, given that message, how do you expect the speaker to attend to you when it is your turn to speak? Early in the talk, I ask my audience to find a partner, preferably someone that they do not know. I ask each to identify an event of some emotional content, which can safely be disclosed to the other. I give them a few pointers that are likely to enhance the listening experience (be open and face on, do not cross legs or arms, assume a relaxed posture). Then the first speaker addresses the listener for three minutes without interruption. The listener then has two minutes to repeat back what she heard, in her own language. The parties then reverse the process, with the first speaker becoming the listener. Then, as a group, we discuss the experience. What is so remarkable about this 10-minute interlude is how surprising it is to the audience to experience genuine listening. There is an excitement generated by the experience. At the same time there is connection, because emotional experiences have been exchanged.

Henry David Thoreau once said, “The greatest compliment paid to me was when someone asked me what I thought and attended to my answer.” Listening is a much-overlooked talent. It gives us an opportunity to look through another’s eyes to expand our creative potential. It allows us to connect and understand one another. It allows for real dialogue, which often enables both parties to shift perspectives.

Why should we listen? Because it serves you. It allows you to better connect to the speaker. Effectively done, it keeps you calm and grounded. From that state, more information becomes available to you, without the background noise of your own narrative’s filter. This, in turn, allows you to better respond, leading to better results.

What is transformative listening? It is what happens when you suspend your memory, desire, beliefs and judgments and, for a few moments, exist only for the other person. Its essence is empathy. It is best to think about it not as a need we have, but as a gift we give – the gift of our attention and understanding. That gift makes the speaker feel validated and valued. Do not underestimate the value of this gift. We spend much of our lives wishing to be “seen” by our loved ones, family, colleagues and friends. We go to extremes to achieve “recognition,” when all that we really may need is simply to be heard.

This lesson is one that I never forget. It has been taught to me by every dying person with whom I have had the honor to serve at their bedside. To be seen is to be “real.” And, remarkably, you need not be an intimate, or even a friend. You can be seen by someone with whom you have had great difficulties. And, in the course of being seen, you inevitably and irreversibly alter your relationship. Listening is a form of healing for both the speaker and listener.

Transformative listening brings with it a “beginner’s mind” – an absence of predetermined belief or judgment. It leaves room for silence, and silence honors the speaker. It allows for deeper thoughts to emerge, which permits the real issues to surface. Transformative listening teaches us to recognize our defensive reactions and to take charge of our responses. It confirms that we are most reactive to those perceived negative characteristics of the speaker that we secretly accuse ourselves of.

And how else do we achieve transformative listening? By focusing on the speaker. Only 7 percent of the perceived meaning of our communications is expressed through words. The remaining 93 percent is communicated through gestures and facial expressions, combinations of speech rate, rhythm, patterns, tone and emphasis. If you are not fully aware of where you are in your body and where the speaker is in hers, you risk missing the great majority of what is being communicated.

So, watch the speaker and listen to the speaker’s patterns, rhythm and emphasis. Never interrupt. Wait for the speaker to pause. Advise…only if asked. Remember, being a transformative listener is first about the speaker, not you. Once the speaker is done, genuinely acknowledge and appreciate what you have heard. And, if you have done this right, there is a very good chance that the speaker will be prepared to listen to you.

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