Are you listening?

“You know, in marriage, the most important thing is you’ve got to listen.  A lot of wives complain their husbands don’t listen.  I’ve never heard my wife say this.  She may have.”

That is one of my favorite jokes by Jerry Seinfeld.  While that bit makes me laugh every time I hear it, the message really isn’t funny.

Whether talking to my boss, brother, father or friends, I hate the feeling of having what I say fall on deaf ears.  I know my girlfriend loves it when I don’t remember a detail from our conversation the previous day.

Now, you are probably thinking, “I don’t need to read this, I am a great listener!”

You are not alone.  Accenture published a study in 2014 of 3,600 business professionals worldwide.  The subjects were evenly distributed by age, gender and salary. 

Guess what percent of those subjects said they were “good listeners?”

Seriously, stop reading for a second and take a guess.  I’ll wait…

Okay, ready?

96 percent claimed to be good listeners.  96 percent!!!!!

Did you hear that?

Of course you did, 96 percent of you are such great listeners.

I don’t know about you, but far more than 4 percent of the people I know could use some work on their listening skills (myself included).

It’s important to examine why we are not as good listeners as we think, and develop skills and tools to improve.

Let’s begin with the why.

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, sheds light on this problem in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman explains that our brain has two modes of thinking: “System 1” thinking is instant, unconscious, emotional and intuitive, while “System 2” thinking is slower, rational and more deliberate.

We face so many situations throughout our day and make judgments constantly.  We rely on System 1 to make up our mind on things like, not even thinking to order tuna for lunch because you hate tuna, or not walking down a poorly lit alleyway at night while you are alone because it doesn’t feel safe, or thinking the new guy at the office, Sam, is mean because he was not friendly when you were introduced.

Wait a second. System 1 leads us to believe that Sam is a dick because of one bad interaction?

Maybe Sam was having an off moment, maybe Sam was overwhelmed with his new surrounding, maybe Sam is under the weather.  The possibilities are endless.

System 1 is capable of betraying us if we are not careful.  System 1 wants to make quick decisions, often without complete information, and can lead us to conclusions that are unsubstantiated.

What does this have to do with listening?

In conversation, System 1 does a great job of making us think we have everything figured out.  This is illustrated by the fact that we are rarely stumped.  System 1 allows us to have intuitive knee-jerk reactions to everything.  When was the last time you or someone you know said, “I really don’t know enough about this topic to have an opinion.”

Not often, right?

This can be very dangerous when it comes to conversation and reaching any kind of understanding with people who don’t share the same feelings we do.

What can we do about this?

We can start by not immediately judging what someone says to us.  This is not easy.  Kahneman goes to great lengths to explain how powerful System 1 is in our lives.  It is often difficult to see how irrationally we react to things without a complete set of information.

Imagine someone asking you, “Do you know everything there is to know about everything?”  You would probably laugh in their face.  Of course you don’t know everything, none of us do.

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” 

That was Einstein, by most accounts, a pretty smart dude.

Keep your ears and eyes open. Every moment is an opportunity to see the world from a new perspective.
Keep your ears and eyes open. Every moment is an opportunity to see the world from a new perspective.

If it is so obvious that there is so much we don’t know or understand, why do we frequently act like we do in day-to-day conversation (or online banter)?

This is where System 2 comes in handy.  System 2, the analytical part of our mind, needs time to process information to reach a conclusion.  We can practice paying attention to situations where System 1 is jumping to irrational conclusions, exercise restraint, and allow System 2 do it’s thing.

Truly hearing someone through is becoming harder and harder in our world of bite sized information, tweets, headlines and Facebook arguments.  With such limited information, all of our System 1’s are racing to judgment and making assumptions left and right, while our analytical System 2’s are getting lazy.

It is easy, and even feels good, to follow your intuitions as opposed to confronting them.

Don’t get me wrong, System 1’s intuition can be valuable and makes navigating this ever more complex world of ours a whole lot more manageable.  However, if we blindly trust our intuition without ever questioning our own assumptions (or of those around us), we miss out on the opportunity to learn and find common ground.

How can we help ourselves accomplish this?

Shut up.  Seriously, shut up and listen.  Stop interrupting and try to withhold judgement until you have heard someone through.  They may be completely wrong, but more often than not, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

When I say “listen,” I do not mean simply wait your turn while you are formulating your response.  Really hear what the person is telling you and respond to what they are saying.

Make eye-contact.  Besides helping you focus on the person you are interacting with, this is a simple sign of respect.  We have all been there, talking to someone while their eyes wander all over.  It is frustrating to be on the receiving end, and quite frankly, it’s pretty rude.

Maintaining eye-contact can be a bit awkward at first.  However, it is amazing how much more you retain and how improved the connection between the person you are talking to is when you look them in the eye. 

If you struggle with this, try focusing on one of the person’s eye at a time.  Sounds a little weird, but it has worked for me and is a good trick.

Ask a question.  Sounds obvious, but asking a follow-up question about what the other person just said is a great way to retain information and show you are paying attention.

Summarize.  This is similar to asking a follow-up question.  As we have established, our System 1 (quick, reactionary part of our brain) likes to jump to conclusions.  It is so easy to misunderstand someone and miss their message.

To avoid this mental landmine, summarize what you have taken away from the conversation and let the person confirm.

“So, you are saying….?”


“Would I be right to say your point is….?”

Being an active listener and being open-minded are skills that require practice.  Our brains like to play tricks on us and love when we stick to our guns.  Luckily, we have opportunities all around us to practice.

There is a consistent message that our society has never been more divided and stratified.  Regardless of your point of view, becoming a better listener can make you more approachable, likable, connected and most importantly informed.  Really hearing and understanding each other can begin to bridge this societal divide.  Better listening can help us be a better friends, mothers, bosses, sons, employees and better people in general.  And that is something worth striving for.

So, just one more question.  Are you listening?

3 thoughts on “Are you listening?

  1. When you asked how often do we say that we don’t know enough to have an opinion… blew me away. Thanks for the interesting topic. I definitely want to read that book as well.


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