The Art and Science of Listening



Great leaders listen.

They don’t just hear, they actively listen. When you are talking with them, they make you feel like you are the only person in the world.

Many of our interactions are transactional information exchanges, yet there are those times when it is time to go deeper than the casual exchange. That is when we need to practice “Active Listening.”

Take this conversation I overhead at the coffee shop (I was not trying to eavesdrop but the close quarters made it unavoidable). Two women at the next table were sharing the news of their sons’ first months at college.

The first woman, I’ll call her Alice, recounted how wonderful sonny was doing in class, making new friends, how many activities he was involved in. When it came time for the second woman to talk, I’ll call her Claire, she leaned in to share her concern that her son seemed to have a hard time transitioning to college life. 

Claire hadn’t gotten very far into her story when Alice broke in with a stream of advice on what Claire and her son should do to ‘fix’ things and get him to be more outgoing. Glancing at Claire, I saw her physically deflate. Her shoulders slumped. She pulled her body back from its ‘leaning in’ position. Her eyes glazed over. Claire didn’t need advice, she needed someone to listen.

The Art of Listening.

A good listener tries to deeply understand and empathize with the speaker. Listening is not sitting in silence waiting for your turn to speak. Rather, it is turning off the ‘me’ mind and turning on the ‘you’ mind. In active listening I try to immerse myself in your story.

A good listener is picking up cues from the language the speaker uses, from the non-verbals. The listener is getting a sense of the emotional depth of the issue to the speaker.

A good listener reflects the un-said. More than just re-phrasing, “so it sounds like you are saying…” Reflecting the un-said might look like, “As you speak about it, it seems this is causing you real pain.”

A good listener contributes to the story when the time is right. Maybe it is the offer of a suggestion, brainstorming ideas with them, or just letting it sit.

The Science of Listening.

Spoken words are just one of the millions of bits of information our brain is processing all the time. To streamline the process, our brain automatically ‘codes’ something as a pattern we’ve seen before or something we haven’t and then determines if we need to pay attention to it.

In the listener’s mind, the words we hear are processed to see if there is a fit against a pattern we know. “Oh, she has a son, I have a son.”Once we have that pattern, we have a default response that we’ve used before. What worked for my son, will work for her son.

Without practice to “active” listening, our brains take us to our pattern and we see whatever is said through the context of what we know, not how the speaker is relating to it. Thus Alice’s well-meant but ill-chosen leap to giving ‘advice’ based on her experience with her own son.

Active listening is suspending our own beliefs and what we think we know, and immersing ourselves in the others story. This activates the brain’s mirror neuron system. This is an area of emerging research, however studies show that mirror neurons are linked with our ability to be empathetic, understand others actions, and learn. Activating the mirror neuron system creates an energy resonance between the speaker and listener.

Another brain process is going on as we listen called mentalization. In mentalization, we are seeking context, the why behind the story.

Have you ever been called into the boss’s office without an explanation? Think of the mental gymnastics your mind is doing. You can feel your mind scrambling for explanations and connections to what had gone on before. 

Why me? What did I do? Is everyone getting a meeting? Is this going to be good? Is it going to be bad?

We are alert for non-verbal cues—Is the boss smiling? Angry? Dis-connected?

This is another thing the brain automatically does in the context of listening—it floats around explanations for “why” someone is saying what they are saying. If we are not able to tell the context around the story, our mind will make something up.

Another area of emerging neuroscience research, this mentalization process is something the brain goes through to put context around what we are processing. It may have to do with our threat detection system; we are trying to determine if the context is something we should move towards or away from.  Mentalization may be preparing us to anticipate some action on our part.

Why does Claire share her story? If Alice had been actively listening she might have noticed it was not to get it fixed; it was to be heard.

To steer my husband’s mentalization away from his default problem solving mode, I will often say right up front, “I don’t need you to fix this, I just want you to listen.” Now his brain doesn’t have to waste energy on figuring out the context, he can focus his full attention on the content and emotion, activating the mirror neuron system.

When you are ‘actively’ listened to, how do you feel? What happens?  


Photo Credit: © Benjavisa Ruangvaree | Dreamstime


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