Listening skills are all about how to save ear-time without being closed-minded

Better listening isn’t necessarily more listening. It can’t be, since you only have so much ear time to go around, way too many demands on it, and a lot of people telling you that you don’t listen enough because you’re shamefully closed-minded.

We don’t hear a lot about listening efficiently or economically, but that’s the pressing practical question for all of us. Here are some basics tips for efficient listening:

  1. Embrace Listenomics: Hearing poses a resource allocation issue, your allocation of a finite amount of attention in a world of near-infinite possible demands for it. So give up on trying to listen to everything and prioritize instead. We all have people we trust and don’t trust, people we listen to receptively and skeptically, and folks we don’t bother listening to anymore. Don’t pretend otherwise, as though you’re somehow able to be receptive to everyone.
  2. Keep your eyes on the prize: What are you listening for? Above all, for clues that help you do what works most efficiently. For that, you need the encouraging news that you’re on the right path, already working efficiently, but also the discouraging news that makes you wonder whether maybe the path you’re on isn’t the best, because there’s a shorter path to achieving your goals.
  3. Don’t fill up on ear-candy: Our ears have taste buds too, and a sweet tooth that welcomes the sugar-coated and spits out the sour. Cultivate a broader ear-palette by leaning to trust your gut to sort out what’s nutritious news and what’s waste product. The better you are at trusting your gut, the better you can listen first and decide later. And cultivate a thoughtful gut by using your head and learning more about what’s really important.
  4. Don’t kill the messenger: Some people are just out to make you feel bad and they’re not worth listening to, but you can’t necessarily tell who these people are by their tone or wording and, given our ear’s sweet tooth you’ll be tempted to do just that: “I don’t have to listen to you because you didn’t word it right.” Truth emerges from arguments among friends, so don’t assume that if you’re arguing, they’re not your friend, and therefore not worth your ear-time.
  5. Don’t succumb to Spin-timidation: People will shame you for not listening better, as though one should always listen to their pearls of wisdom and if you don’t you’re prejudiced. Such spin-timidation is irrelevant to whether they’re worth listening to, so ignore it and make up your own mind.
  6. Wonder about the difference between prejudice and un-receptivity: We all ignore somebody. The question is how do we decide whom to ignore? Do you only listen to things said by people of your race, religion, culture or opinion, only to prominent ten-dollar people, ignoring the five-dollar folk? Prominent people have earned a reputation for saying useful or at least affirming things, but prominence brings its own distortions. In general, decide whom to listen to based on content, not status, wording or stereotypes.
  7. Wonder which is kinder–humoring, debating, or exiting: When someone disagrees with us, we have a choice, but not a clear-cut moral one. Sometimes being diplomatic is the kindest thing to do, but it’s also humoring them which can be disrespectful. Conversely, debating them can seem unkind but it can also demonstrate respect for their ability to hear opposing positions. And sometimes it’s most respectful to just walk away, even though they may want to spin your exit as evidence of surrender or closed-mindedness. Don’t assume that any of the three options is the right moral choice in all situations.
  8. Embrace the guesswork: The problem with significance is that some things that seem significant turn out to be insignificant and some things that seem insignificant turn out to be significant. So of course, there will be times when you say, “If only I had ignored that,” and “If only I had listened.” What’s worth hearing is not as obvious as seeing the writing on the wall. We all bet on what’s worth listening to. We all bet wrong sometimes. No matter, just do your best to make better bets, which is why you need to train your gut.
  9. Send Clear signals: You can save a whole lot of ear-time by being clear about what you’ve heard, and not just with “I heard you” lip-service. You can mirror which is simply restating the talker’s idea in your own words and checking to see whether you heard right. You can also provide evidence that you’re listening by taking their idea and running with it, as in, “I’m thinking about what you said and it’s got me wondering about such and such.”
  10. Burn bridges cleanly: When you decide not to listen any longer, disengage efficiently. Don’t jab on your way out the door. It’s unkind but more to the point, it’s ambiguous, like saying, “I’m not engaging, because…” and then engaging in explaining why you’re not engaging.

Oh, and:

Tolerate unto others: Don’t spin-timidate other people for not listening to you. Don’t assume that they owe you a listen. We all have to earn our credibility. You may be convinced that you’re worth hearing, but to others, the burden of proof is on you.

Author’s Book

© Copyright 2015 Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.
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Vital stats: Berkeley, 57, partnered, three children (M34, M28, F24), married once for 17 years. Educationally: Ph.D. in evolutionary theory, masters in public policy Vocationally: MBA professor of strategic foresight, business consultant and communications trainer, academic researcher. Historically: I've taught over 250k college-student/hours in psychology, sociology, rhetoric, philosophy, advertising, economics, history, English, cultural studies, marketing and strategy. I founded a non-profit environmental lobbying organization in DC, worked as a business consultant and public affairs director for large companies, ran a foundation, designed and implemented water projects in Guatemala. For seven years I lived on the world's largest hippie commune, and was an elected elder there at 24. Authority: None. I never refer to myself as an expert in anything, but rather a specialist in those questions that interest me (see below). I write with no authority. I read lots but cite rarely in my articles which should be read as opinion pieces, not declaration of scientifically proven fact. I will not pull rank on readers: My ideas are only worth considering only if they're based on good reasoning. I change my ideas over time. Caveat emptor. They say "don't believe everything you think. I'll go one further: I don't believe everything I write, in that for every argument I make, I aim to be able to express convincingly the counterargument. I try to live by the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Self-expressively: I've written over 600 articles for Psychology Today, coined over 400 psychology neologisms. I write songs and limericks. I play bass and sing in jazz, Latin, funk, and Nigerian groups three nights a week. Intellectually, yet intimately, my middle-age spread spans several life-sized questions. * Most cosmically, how did mattering emerge from matter?, life from non-life? mind from chemistry? economics from physics? information from energy, questions I address as a member of a 16 year research project with UC Berkeley scientist Terrence Deacon. * More practically, though not unrelated, how do and how should we shop among interpretations, deciding what's significant and how to respond to what life deals us? * Also practically and related, what is a butthead other than someone we butt heads with? since in a free society we should define morals negatively--not what you should, but what you shouldn't do. We say "don't be a butthead," but define buttheads subjectively as people we butt heads with. I seek a more objective distinction between what's morally in and out of bounds. * How do and should we balance the ambigamist's tensions and what is the underlying structure of such tensions? For this I use the Serenity Prayer as a template, and think about levels of analysis (going meta). I've written five books, only one published but the rest out soon one way or another. Negotiate with yourself and win: Doubt management for people who can hear themselves think. Purpose: A natural history Doubt: A user's guide; a natural history Mind readers dictionary: Terms for reading between the lines with greater comprehension. Executive UFO: A field guide to unidentified flying objectives in the workplace.