As of last week, The Book of Life at The School of Life website had been viewed over 26 million times but its How to be a Good Listener chapter had just 51,655 views. No surprise there. The soft stuff is always harder than the hard stuff. Despite the ever-present need, improving my listening practices rarely appears among people’s interests or priorities.
It is impossible to overemphasize the immense need humans have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, to be understood. Listening is a fundamental dialogue and relationship skill-set, but one in which very many people are significantly underdeveloped.
Although they experience frustration when they themselves are not listened to and may complain about this, they show little insight into the nature and quality of their own practices, how much their below-par listening contributes to interpersonal challenges they encounter, or the benefits of learning new habits.
[Few] of us know how to [listen] . . not because we are evil, but because no one has taught us how and few have listened sufficiently well to us. So we come to social life greedy to speak rather than listen, hungry to meet others, but reluctant to hear them. Friendship degenerates into a socialised egoism  (also known as conversational narcissism), the parties me-deep in conversation:
SELF-REFLECTION TO IMPROVE LISTENING QUALITY
Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful. [Margaret Wheatley]
When we’ve been called upon to listen, it can be useful to take some moments afterwards to reflect on our practices. The following questions can help us learn to better engage in conversations, avoid a wandering mind and remain focused on developing our interpersonal relationships.
- Did I put my interest in other matters aside without resentment or would it have been wise to have negotiated another time for the conversation?
- Was my intent as listener to truly understand what they wanted me to?
- Who did most of the talking?
- How much deep curiosity did I express?
- How well did I explore their meaning and test my understanding of it?
- Did I notice and reflect their emotional state – their feelings?
- Did I understand their Big Picture (wider context) the exchange (may have) formed a part of?
- What did I do to I avoid making the discussion about me and my ego?
- How concerned was I about how I might come across?
- What thoughts or feelings of mine disrupted my focus?
- What, if anything, was I worried I would hear if I listened well?
- What did I mostly pay attention to: facts or feelings?
- Did I really understand what they were saying or did I fake it?
- When I was confused or in doubt about their meaning, did I seek clarification?
- Was I concerned that if I admitted I didn’t understand or didn’t know how to respond at all times, they would think less of me?
- Did I have in mind the “right” answers to my questions?
- How open or defensive was I?
- What could I improve? When and how will I?
A NEW, VERY PRACTICAL RESOURCE
In the 10 months since my last post I’ve been single-mindedly writing a new book about listening and other interpersonal communication skill-sets. The book’s origins lie in my decades of providing successful training programmes for some thousands of people thirsty for support with relationship issues and challenges at all levels of organisational life and elsewhere.
The success of these programmes is in the discovery that while “everybody knows” plain speaking and good listening are basic, there are three other commonsense but uncommonly-practised skill-sets that are also foundational to good practice because they unlock the common obstacles to constructive communication that we ourselves can control or influence. (My new book deals comprehensively with them all.) Participants often say, I wish I’d had the opportunity to know this before I became a manager . . . got married . . . began to lead meetings . . . joined a book club or a community group . . . became a member of the Board . . . became a parent . . . was appointed CEO . . . joined the Executive Team . . . took a team leadership position . . .
I’ve enjoyed writing the book. It’s a very practical guide to help people self-assess, improve and self-manage the effectiveness of their interpersonal communication practices in social and workplace settings. Readers will find in it many surprises and challenges, and a great deal of unusually practical, long-lasting support for change.
Look out for an announcement about the publishing date, on this site. Currently with editors and various designated readers, it should be available within weeks. Get in touch if you want direct notification of its availability.
 Paul Tournier
 The Book of Life