Listening is like playing guitar. I don’t mean playing “Puff the Magic Dragon.” (Which, if you don’t know it, is easy to play.) I mean playing “Eruption.” (Again, if you don’t know this song — incredible as that seems to me — it is not easy to play.)
My last post ended with me eagerly looking forward to writing about listening. Then I did an internet search for “effective listening.” A kajillion articles and videos answered the digital call. Not only that, but I read a few and they were actually good. Kinda took the wind out of my sails. Why even bother adding to that online mountain of information?
Hmmmm. I guess because I can say some stuff in my own unique (some might say odd; I wouldn’t argue) way. For example, I saw nothing comparing great listening skills to Eddie Van Halen’s guitar wizardry. (R.I.P. Eddie. Sniff… sniff… A moment of silence, please.) So I’ll do that.
My point? Like playing very basic guitar, very basic listening is reasonably simple. Excellent guitar playing and listening… are not.
Hard To Do Well; Easy to Mess Up
Let’s not forget the valuable life lessons, learned in that classic Kindergarten activity known as “The Telephone Game.” If your Kindergarten was a cruel and uncaring place which deprived you of this essential life experience, I weep for you. Please hurry to check it out here.
Listening — good, effective listening — is not easy. It’s complicated and hard work. As the Telephone Game teaches us, it is easily messed up.
In simple terms, this is because it’s tough to maintain attention and take in everything said to you. Don’t tell me you’ve never drifted off and missed at least part of what someone was saying! Maybe you started thinking about how much you like ham and cheese. Maybe worry about whether COVID will cancel Halloween this year crept into your mind.
However, a much bigger problem with listening, in my opinion, is misunderstand of meaning. I don’t know if this has ever been researched; but I would not be surprised if human beings misunderstand what they hear from other human beings more often than we accurately understand. (I include myself in this.)
That is a topic which deserves its own post. I’ll save it for next time. For now, my point is that there are many different challenges, which make it hard to achieve excellent listening.
It’s Not For Lack of Information!
Google “active listening” or “effective listening” and you’ll see what I mean by a kajillion responses. There really are some good ones. Here are a just a couple I picked (almost) randomly:
Listen Up! Part I: Learning the Manly Skill of Paying Attention This one makes me giggle (in a good way). Directed at men, as it is no secret we’re not known for attentive listening. It’s an amazingly well written article — bordering on art — and very instructive. (If I’m not mistaken, this website might qualify for the term “hipster.”)
Listening Skills An excellent page, which covers many aspects of listening quickly and clearly.
So with all that good information out there, how come — as a species — we still suck at effective listening?
Well this finally brings me back to Eddie Van Halen. You see, there are plenty of excellent tutorials on playing guitar out there; just as there are with listening. Yet one does not find guitar players able to keep up with Eddie playing on every street corner. To the best of my knowledge, it is fairly rare for a guitar player to achieve that level of skill.
Reading instructional books and articles and watching “how to” videos on YouTube is great; but does not turn you into a master of whatever skill you’re learning about.
The most obvious reason for this is the need for practice. I knew a guy in high school who could keep up with Eddie Van Halen. Curious about how he became so proficient with his guitar, I asked him how much he practiced. My 16 year-old brain was almost knocked out of my head, when he calmly said, “Oh, about 4 hours a day.”
It baffled me that anyone could spend 4 hours each day at anything. Which greatly helps to explain why I cannot play Eruption.
It All Sounds Good On Paper
To become a virtuoso at anything, you must practice. Listening is no different. And I’m not talking about binge-watching your favourite Netflix series. While that does involve 6 straight hours of listening; it’s the wrong kind of listening. It’s passive, and does not practice any of the skills needed for epic conversational listening.
Back in college, I learned that conversational listening requires “a feedback loop.” That’s fancy talk for hearing someone say some stuff, and then saying to that person, “I think what you meant is this: __________.” You fill in the blank with what you think you heard the person say. Ideally, you paraphrase what was said, rather than just spitting out exactly the same words the person used. Because that’s a bit annoying.
Obviously, this is not a practical goal for the multitude of conversations which take place all around the world. If we took the time to do feedback loops for everything others speak in our direction, we would all starve to death as there would no time left to eat.
Consider this little conversation:
Person 1: “Hi, how are you today?”
Person 2: “I think what you meant by that is a warm greeting, in a socially appropriate form. Is that right?”
Person 1: “Uhhhhhh. I was just saying ‘hi’.”
Person 2: “Let’s see if I understand you correctly. You feel confused by my efforts to use feedback in communication. Perhaps you would rather just exchange meaningless pleasantries and move on to other things.”
Person 1: “Is this some kind of joke?”
Person 2: “Mmmm. Once again, I think I’m picking up on confusion with my style of communication. Is that what you meant?”
Person 1: “Get lost, jerk.”
Person 2: “Ah. I think you’re expressing frustration and a desire to end interactions with me. Is that right?”
Person 1: “Yes!!”
Keep in mind that only Person 2 was using feedback loops in this delightful little exchange. If Person 1 also used feedback loops, the conversation would probably be ten times longer.
Not to mention, this entire conversation went no further than “hello”. Can you imagine extensive use of feedback loops in a detailed conversation about the meaning of life? That would be a long day.
I have not even begun to address other listening skills, like trying to remain calm and attentive when the speaker starts spouting off ideas you find offensive. If you think listening is easy, then I challenge you to do a great job of it, while the person speaking to you is insulting you and your mother.
Don’t Be So Certain
Just to wrap this mess up, let me make a suggestion. It’s the subtitle about an inch above these words.
Have you ever experienced someone announcing to you, “I know what you really mean!” before proceeding to inform you of what you really meant, even though it’s not even close? Poor listening for sure; but that person no doubt considers it genius level. Unfortunately, this is just an exaggerated example of what happens regularly, albeit more quietly and often without notice by either the speaker or listener.
This brings me back to the need for humility. If I can add anything to the wealth of “how to listen effectively” information out there, it might be this: set aside your ego, and don’t be so certain you understand what you’ve just heard.
That can be frustrating, cumbersome and plain old hard work. However, it can go a long way to not only enhancing communication, but the quality of relationships which are fed by that communication.