Listening Actively With An Open Mind

Listening is not a passive act, something that ‘just happens’. It requires concentration and effort to do it well. Even if you are listening hard, it’s easy to distort, or filter, what your conversational partner is saying. The goal must be to listen with an open mind, as free from prejudice, preconception and assumption-making as humanly possible.

Issues with listening

Effective listening is not a state of mind, like being happy or relaxed. It's not something that ‘just happens’. It's an activity, like calculating or making an effort to recall something. In other words, effective listening requires work. We have all, at one time or another, been both perpetrators and victims of different forms of ‘inactive’ listening. Here are three of them.

Non-Listening: Sometimes we go through the motions of listening, but we really aren't engaged. Sometimes we get away with it. Sometimes we are caught. "What would you say to her?" the wife asks her husband after telling him about a problem a friend of hers has. Embarrassed, he replies, "Say to whom?" Staring him down, she says, "You haven't been listening to a word I've said." For whatever reasons, he has tuned her out.

Partial listening: This is listening that skims the surface. The person in the Understander role picks up bits and pieces, but not necessarily the essential points the Explainer/Teller is making. For instance, Janice's teenage son, Benjamin, is talking to her about a canoe trip sponsored by his Boy Scout troop. She only half listens.

Later, when he returns from the trip, she starts yelling at him, "You didn't tell me that the canoe rental was extra!"

The point is that he had. Inadequate listening helps neither understanding, nor the relationship.

Tape-Recorder Listening: At other times, we may be present physiologically but not psychologically. In this case, the Explainer/Teller often picks up some signals that her partner is not listening very well. Ultimately, the Explainer/Teller, frustrated, challenges the person in the Understander role, saying something like, "You're not listening!" Then the other person lamely replies, "I am too. I can repeat everything you've said." It's obvious why this response provides little solace for the Explainer/Teller. Your conversational partners want you, not a tape recorder. Your auditory equipment is in order, but your humanity is elsewhere.

Of course, communicators in the Understander role can go overboard on listening. Remember that you are a human being listening to a human being, not a vacuum cleaner, indiscriminately sweeping up every scrap. Which brings us to the next topic - listening well.

Listening well

Listening well has a lot to do with accuracy. You hear what other people are actually saying rather than what you ‘think’ they are saying, or ‘should’ be saying. It does little good to expend a great deal of energy listening actively if we fail to pick up the essentials, that is, the main points your conversational partner is trying to get across.

Listening well includes:

(a) Listening to what Explainer/Tellers are saying verbally.

(b) Listening to the nonverbal behaviour that modifies what is being said verbally

and factoring in the context that gives further meaning or definition to what the Explainer/Teller is saying.

Listening well also has a lot to do with picking up the essentials, that is, the main points the Explainer/Teller is trying to get across. Since you are not a vacuum cleaner, your job is to identify the things that are relevant to the other's story, message, point of view, or case.

But relevance is not enough. As you listen, you must also focus on the important parts. Active listening is focused listening. Perhaps one of the best questions you can ask yourself in order to listen well is: "What are the main points the Explainer/Teller is making?" A ‘main point’ is something that is both relevant and important in the Explainer/Teller's story, message, point of view, or case. Let's take a look at what listening well means in terms of the Explainer/Teller's verbal behaviour, nonverbal behaviour, and the context of both.

To verbal messages

First of all, you need to listen to the Explainer/Teller's words and their meaning. Your job as Understander is to help Explainer/Tellers get their main points across as clearly as possible. To do this you need to first capture what they are saying. The four kinds of Telling outlined earlier - telling a story, delivering a message, sharing a point of view, or making a case - can help you organise your listening. For instance, you might say to yourself, "Maria is making a case for sending our daughter to a private school." Knowing this can help you listen to the words more effectively.

Let's take a look at a couple of examples. In the first case, Serena is talking with her brother-in-law, Christian. He's looking for a new job. She's heard of a job she thinks might be tailor-made for him. But she notices some hesitancy when she mentions that the job requires a fair amount of air travel. She asks Christian about his hesitancy.

He explains himself through a personal story. "At one time, I didn't give flying a second thought. But then two things happened. On a holiday trip last year I noticed that the inner window I was sitting next to during a charter flight was loose. I told the stewardess, and one of the pilots eventually came. After taking a look at it, he said, ‘I wouldn’t sit here if I were you.' That's the last time I took a charter."

"Then, on a scheduled flight later in the year, the plane I was on hit severe turbulence. Flight attendants fell on passengers, food trays went flying about, and the passenger in the seat beside me threw up. So now I fly when I absolutely have to, but I dread it."

Let's say that Serena replies by saying, "But, Christian, it's a really good job. And I think I can get you on the inside track. You'd be perfect for it!"

She obviously has been listening to herself - what she has to offer - rather that his concerns.

However, if Serena had read this chapter first, she might have said, "So these incidents - sounds like both were terrifying - have put you off flying … Well, I'm not going to push you. It's too bad. Other than the flying you probably would like the job."

To this Christian says, "Well, let me think it over. I'll get back to you quickly - one way or the other. It might not hurt to find out what the job is like."

The main point is the dramatic impact these two events have had on Christian's attitude toward flying. His learned fear is both relevant and important to the job prospect. On the other hand, in the second interchange Serena doesn't hear an absolute “no” to the job. So she knows that it’s probably all right to explore the possibility with him further.

To nonverbal messages

Not all of your conversational partner's points are verbal. Explainer/Tellers also ‘emit’ nonverbal signals or messages. Some, like the nodding of the head, are messages in themselves. But often, nonverbal behaviour gives colour to, or modifies, what is being said verbally. Sometimes a gesture or a frown even, change the meaning of verbal messages completely. Consider this example. You are talking to Kenton, a friend of yours. You haven't seen him for a while.

Towards the end of the conversation you say, "Kenton, how about coming over for dinner tonight? Ingrid would be delighted to see you."

Kenton hesitates, strokes his chin with his hand, looks down, and then slowly says, "Well … ah … it's kind of sudden notice … but I think I can make it … Umm, I think so."

Even though his words ultimately indicate "yes," he has actually said "no." But let's say you ignore all these nonverbal modifiers and reply, "Good, we'll see you around seven." You haven't been listening.

If you had listened to Kenton's hesitations, you might have said something like this:

"I tell you what, Kenton. This is short notice. In fact, I'm not sure that Ingrid is free. But let me call you this week and make a date."

The relief on Kenton's face should be reward enough. But what you are doing here is recovering from a mistake. Don't set traps for people.

You could have said something like this in the first place, "Ingrid and I would love to have you over for dinner. I think we're free tonight. But tonight might not be the best time for you at all. Or for Ingrid. What I'm really saying is that we'd love to have you over sometime soon."

This is a socially intelligent offer. There will be more about social intelligence and communication in a later chapter.

Reading nonverbal messages is not a modern invention. People of common sense have been reading such messages from time immemorial. The face and body are extremely communicative. Here are some of the nonverbals that can give a particular spin to verbal messages:

(a) Bodily behaviour, such as posture and gestures.

(b) Facial expressions, such as smiles, frowns, and raised eyebrows.

(c) Voice‑related behaviour, such as tone of voice, loudness, speed of talking, pauses, and silences

(d) Automatic responses, such as fast breathing, blushing, and paleness.

A person's nonverbal behaviour has a way of ‘leaking’ hidden or half-stated messages to others. When David said to Jennie, "I hope you don't mind my taking up your time like this," Jennie replies, "Well, this is hardly the best time." But at the same time she moves the papers on her desk aside, pushes her chair back, and faces David squarely. Her nonverbal modifiers seem to say, "Well, although this is not the best time, if the issue is important to you, I'm certainly ready to talk."

Nonverbal behaviours modify and punctuate verbal messages in much the same way that periods, question marks, exclamation marks, and underlining, punctuate written language. Here are some of the things that nonverbal ‘punctuation’ can do:

Nonverbals can confirm what is being said verbally. For instance, Kurt, in the Understander role, shares a highlight with Constance. She not only says, "That's right!" but her eyes light up (facial expression), she leans forward a bit (bodily motion), and her voice is very animated (voice quality). Her nonverbal behaviour confirms her verbal message.

Nonverbals can deny or confuse what is being said verbally. When Danielle challenges Barry about his rude behaviour, he denies that he is upset, but his voice wavers a bit (voice quality), and he blushes (automatic response). His nonverbal behaviour probably carries the real message. Or his message might be, "Of course I'm upset. I hate being challenged, but I'm still willing to listen."

Nonverbals can emphasise what is being said. When Joseph says, "You're wrong! I don't want to sell my apartment," and looks you right in the eye and pounds the table, it’s quite clear that he isn't saying, "Well, I could sell under certain circumstances." Nonverbal clues often add emotional colour or intensity to verbal messages.

Of course, effective communicators, when in the Explainer/Teller role, actively use nonverbal behaviour to ‘punctuate’ their messages, stories, and points of view. They also make sure that their nonverbal behaviour does not deny or confuse their verbal messages.

In reading nonverbal behaviour – ‘reading’ is used here instead of ‘interpreting’ - caution is a must. We listen in order to understand our conversational partners rather than to dissect them. It’s important not to focus too much on this or that bit of nonverbal behaviour. A frown, for instance, can be a sign of concentration as well as confusion or disapproval. So, rather than jumping to conclusions, take a few moments to consider and confirm your hunches. While concentrating on folded arms, or tight lips, you might miss the message. If you make too much of a half-smile on the face of conversational partner, you might seize the behaviour but lose the person.

Body language and other forms of nonverbal communication constitute a huge subject that could easily fill a book on its own. Fortunately, you already have a ‘lab’ close at hand - your own body and your conversations with others. Pay attention to how your own body language either hides, or highlights, your messages. Scrutinise yourself first, then consider others. But don't overdo it.

To feelings

Full listening includes listening to the feelings and other mental states that people express, as they are telling their stories, delivering their messages, sharing their points of view, and making their cases. It’s a mistake to ignore feelings. We don't ignore our own. Why should we ignore those of others? They are an important part of our humanity. They are drivers of our best and worst human behaviours.

On the other hand, it’s also a mistake to focus too much attention on feelings and emotions. Asking questions such as, "How do you feel?" is often, if not always, inappropriate for a couple of reasons. First, the other person probably has expressed some emotion. If that is the case, it’s your job to recognise it. Or you're fishing for emotions because you think they should be there.

One of the most important things to note is that feelings and emotions are usually caused by what we do (or fail to do) and by what happens to us (our experiences). Feelings and emotions don't dangle out there on their own. Dorothy is unhappy because her boyfriend has left her. Abner is elated because he has completed a complicated project successfully. Therefore, when you ‘listen to’ another person's feelings and emotions, it's important to note the links to situations, behaviours, and experiences.

Consider Buford. He is talking to you about a business deal he has pulled off.

At one point you say, "You're elated because you've earned a good bonus from the deal, but it sounds like you're even more pleased with proving to your colleagues that you are capable of handling a deal that size on your own.”

And he replies, "You've hit it on the button. I knew I could do it, though my boss wasn’t so sure.”

You not only picked up his emotional state, but you got the reason right. Listening well means identifying the right feeling or emotion, its degree, and the linkage to what is causing it.

So when Bert pours out his tale of woe about an encounter with his boss and you respond, "So you're still fuming. Blaming you for something you didn't do was bad enough. But doing it while you were with an important customer. That was just stupid."

Here you got the emotion right (anger), the degree right (fuming, not just annoyed), and the linkage right (not just the inappropriate blame but embarrassing you in front of a customer). And, as always, the quality of listening is best found in the quality of the response.

Listening with an open mind

Listening with an open mind means being willing to be influenced by what you hear. It’s the opposite of being dogmatic. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have strong views of your own. But it does require you to be willing to consider the merit in what other people say.

Open-minded listening calls for self-discipline. We all have a strong tendency to jump to conclusions. The skill is to slow down the process so you have time to think about what you are hearing.

The hardest time to listen with an open mind — the time when you need all your reserves of self-control — is when you are listening to something you don’t want to hear.

A good example is critical feedback. Let’s suppose your boss is debriefing you on your behaviour at a meeting, where you lost your temper. It’s painful to hear and difficult to take on board with an open mind. But it’s usually worth the effort.

Listening without distortion

Dialogue requires listening without distorting what your conversational partners are saying, even when you might not like what is being said. You first job is to get in touch with your partner's perspective, not to colour it with your own. We all have our own opinions on just about everything. So when we're listening, it's tempting to judge what we're hearing from our own perspective. As we listen to other people, we often say things to ourselves like, "Why'd he do that?" or, "What a stupid idea!"

People who listen with an open mind avoid anticipating what they think their conversational partners are going to say. They don't jump to conclusions. How many times have you made up your mind about the other person's message even before it's fully delivered? Distorted listening is one of the major causes of misunderstanding.

Here are two fragments of a conversation.

George, in the Explainer/Teller role, is discussing his relationship to his estranged wife with his friend Bill. "She's left me, but she keeps ‘returning’ in little ways… . You know, she calls to ask questions about possible divorce proceedings … She wants to meet for lunch to discuss, what to me, are inconsequential issues … I don't know."

If Bill is listening with a closed mind, he might say to himself, "There goes George again, feeling sorry for himself. When's he going to get over it?"

However, if Bill is listening with an open mind, he might say to himself: "George seems confused because his wife seems to him to have left him, and yet, not left him. He's probably wondering what her ‘game’ might be."

Enemies of open-minded listening

There are many enemies to the kind of open-minded listening needed for real dialogue. Some of them are listed here. Note that they are interrelated. More than one of them might be happening at the same time.

Judgmental Listening: The Understander listens in order to determine whether what the Explainer/Teller is saying is right or wrong. Joanna ‘listens’ to Rupert talk about disliking his job. He finally blurts out that he's just quit without having another job to go to. Joanna says to herself, "Well, that was a crazy thing to do."

Distorted Listening: In this case the Understander listens through filters that distort what the Explainer/Teller has to say. Personal prejudices fall into this category. For instance, Sheila is talking about Terry, a close friend of hers who belongs to a particular religious group. Tanya, a colleague at work, has a distorted image of the ‘kind of people’ who belong to that group. Tanya says to herself, "If she's going out with him, she's asking for trouble." She misses the good things Sheila has been saying about Terry.

Stereotype-based Listening: Ned, a manager, is talking with Nadia, a clerical worker, about a new product the company is proposing. Nadia makes some comments about the new product, but Ned listens to her as ‘just a clerk’ and fails to hear the rather insightful observations she is making.

Resistive Listening: Some people immediately dislike new ideas that are not their own. Or they are so conservative that they see new ideas as the enemy. When they hear new ideas, their fault-finding mechanisms go into high gear. When Jeremy hears a fellow church member talking about getting involved with other churches, he says to himself, "Why don't people just leave things alone?"

Interpretive Listening: In this case, we use our own frameworks to interpret, rather than understand, what the other is saying. For instance, Alexandra, a big fan of Sigmund Freud, is listening to her cousin Norbert talk about his problems with his father. At one point she says, "Oedipus lives on. When are you going to stop competing with your father for your mother's affections?" She listens to her cousin through the filters of a psychological theory.

Past-behaviour-based Listening. You assume that the person you are listening to is always the same. You don't allow for change. For instance, knowing George, you expect that everything he says will be tinged with self-pity. You hear self-pity even when he is trying to break free from this behaviour.

Attraction-based Listening. The Understander believes that what the person is saying is as attractive (or unattractive) as the person saying it. Paul is attractive. His ideas always sound good to you. Edna is not attractive. Her ideas never sound right.

These and other kinds of distorted, or filtered, listening lead inevitably to misunderstanding and often to strained, or unproductive, relationships.

On the other hand, open-minded listening avoids filters to the degree that this is possible. The phrase, ‘to the degree that this is possible’, is necessary because we grow up immersed in various cultures - family, country, religion, and so forth - and cultures spawn filters. Sometimes they seem to be hard-wired into our thinking. Effective communicators understand that they grow up with filters but still try to focus on what the other person is actually saying. Filters and frameworks may be useful later on, in an analysis of what someone has said, but the starting point should be, to the highest degree possible, the unvarnished perspective of the Explainer/Teller understood as fully as possible.

Open-minded listening is not the same as internally approving what the other is saying. You can listen openly to Ian's ideas about politics without approving of his points of view. But if you listen with an open mind, you might learn something.

One of the reasons why it’s so important to listen both actively and well, is something philosophers noticed long ago. A small error in the beginning can lead to huge errors later on. If the foundation of a building is out of kilter, it’s hard to notice with the naked eye. By the time construction reaches the 20th floor, the building is uninhabitable. Or it looks like the leaning tower of Pisa. Tuning-in to Explainer/Tellers and listening actively, well, and with an open mind, are foundation Understander skills. Ignore them, and dialogue is impossible.

Licenses and Attributions