What would you reply if someone asked you, “What’s the secret to a happy life? What’s the single most important life skill that I should develop?” Would you say it was discipline, persistence, conscientiousness? How about compassion, gratitude, or humility? Would you suggest they develop their empathy or instead focus on being as efficient as possible? I’m increasingly of the opinion that listening is the most critical core life skill. Listening acts as an enabler and foundational component for most of the other useful life skills.
Listening showed up at the top of the list of “best advice” when I analyzed CNN Money’s articles on the topic in Thrice Filtered Leadership Wisdom. Listening is also typically mentioned or lauded by anyone teaching leadership or communication skills. For example, in How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie encourages the reader to be a good listener, let the other person do a great deal of the talking, and try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. Likewise, one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” Of course, how can you possibly understand someone else if you haven’t listened to them?
Few would argue the importance of listening, but what makes it critical and foundational? What is the power of listening? Aside from the many obvious benefits, like exposing you to a broad range of ideas, building trust and rapport, and establishing a common narrative, listening also sets you up to build and develop the other life skills that in turn make you happier, healthier, and more productive. Here’s how…
Awareness and Agility
On the surface, listening is just “paying attention to sound,” but of course there is much more to it than that. Auditory listening is just one manifestation of a more general type of listening, namely being aware, being conscious, and paying attention. As I mentioned in Living the SWEET Life, Daily, awareness lets you short-circuit your habitual thought processes. This in turn leads to agility: the ability to rapidly adjust based on the current state of affairs, with little effort. Thus, listening, and paying attention in general, lets you be dynamic, limber, and agile. Awareness fundamentally allows you to be in the moment, consider all options, and actively self-correct.
To understand its power, it’s helpful to think about what listening is not. If you are not listening, then what are you doing? Usually, you are absorbed in your own thoughts. You are distracted, your attention is elsewhere, and not on the person who is trying to communicate with you. If you are not aware of what’s going on and being said, and you only check in haphazardly or reactively, the input to your decision making apparatus (i.e., your brain) is limited and biased, making it more difficult to react in a timely and appropriate manner. Why would you starve your brain of potentially useful information at the outset, without even considering it? Are your own thoughts really that important and productive?
Other Ways of Listening
If listening leads to agility in communication, imagine what it could do for you when you apply it to more than just conversations. What does that mean? Communicating with others is just one possible modality of gathering information about your world, and other people are just one source of information. You can get so much more from using all of your senses, and focusing not just on others, but yourself and your environment. For example, what if you decided to “listen” to what your nose and tongue were telling you, as you ate or even just as you walked down the street or met with another person? What if you could really absorb and be aware of everything in your visual field of view, including the facial expressions and body language of people you were talking to, as well as knowing exactly what’s around you physically, how it’s moving, and what it’s likely to do next? What if you decided to listen to your somatic sensations, really listen to your body? Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could sense the smallest twinge of pain or really be able to notice when some part of your body was inflamed, or be aware when your body has dumped cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream? Most importantly, what if you listened, really listened, to your own thoughts and emotions? You might be surprised, or even enlightened, by what you hear. This kind of awareness is not the stuff of superheroes and science fiction. It is achievable and, remarkably, not that difficult to learn, although it takes lots and lots of practice.
Becoming an Active Listener
We spend most of our lives learning to habitualize and ritualize our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. But this approach of laying down default behaviors and then strengthening them with repetition over time is exactly the opposite of what makes us most effective at dealing with the dynamic, changing world we live in. Listening, paying attention, and being aware of our inner and outer world, in every way possible, is what fundamentally enables us to be good communicators, effective leaders, and agile, facile contributors to ourselves and others. It places the conscious mind back into the loop. Listening is one of the few habits we would all do well to ingrain deep in our psyche.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to lose the habit of being a great listener. How do you learn to listen? It turns out to be disarmingly simple – learn to listen by practicing listening! For example, here’s a simple exercise you can do to practice auditory listening: whenever you are conversing 1-to-1 with someone, and you are about to inject your opinion, experience, amusing anecdote or advice, simply stop and hold it back. Let the other person continue until they’ve completely spoken their piece. Then (and only then) return the favor, but before expounding on your own personal thoughts, try to let the other person know you’ve heard them by simply summarizing what they’ve just said (this is sometimes called active listening), and let them respond. You may end up never getting to make your point, and that, in itself, is the point.
It’s been said that the greatest gift you can give someone is your undivided attention. Imagine, then, the enormity of the gift of learning to listen to yourself. If you could hear and understand all of the activity going on in both your body and mind, you could be agile about adjusting to it, developing it, and improving it. This is what I meant earlier when I alluded to listening helping to make you happier, healthier, and more productive. True listening also involves developing the ability to attend to all sources of information (one’s self, others, one’s environment) from all modalities (senses, emotions, thoughts). Again, to learn to do this, you must practice. Luckily, this is already something that’s been well understood for thousands of years, and the techniques for practice are meditation and yoga. Or, if those sound too intimidating, just simply practicing mindfulness (it really is quite easy).
Discipline, persistence, conscientiousness, compassion, gratitude, humility, empathy and efficiency – all of these are laudable traits. And all of them are amplified by the agility imparted by listening and awareness. When will you start your listening practice? It’s easy, and only takes a few seconds or minutes each day. Here’s a recent article to help you get started. And here’s a Beatles song to inspire you…