Purposeful Listening: The Art of Listening More than What’s Said

All of us want to be heard, but nobody wants to listen. Really listen. That’s why spouses fight, friendships fall apart, and employees leave companies.

We are so busy mastering the art of speaking that we never focus on learning the art of listening. But if you wish to be a good partner, a good friend, a good manager, learning how to listen with purpose is indispensable.

The primary purpose of listening is to understand, not to respond.

Most people aren’t the best communicators. Many times they don’t really mean what they are saying. What they actually want to say is different from what they are saying. Unless you are listening with a purpose to understand their point of view, the communication will break down.

There are obvious signs when there’s a breakdown in communication. Especially when both parties charge angrily or storm out frustrated. But this doesn’t happen abruptly. It starts with a small crack that slowly builds with time.

Simran: You never help me around in the house.

Raj: But I helped you just the day before yesterday.

Here Simran is expressing how she feels about the whole thing—that she’s the one who has to do all the work, but Raj isn’t listening. Instead, Raj is countering her emotional state of mind with logic. This will never work. This is a classic example of failing to understand the difference between what is said and what is meant.

When an employee comes to you and says, “I don’t feel appreciated,” your first job is to “acknowledge” their state of mind instead of disputing it with a set of counter examples. “What about the time we celebrated your birthday in office, didn’t you feel appreciated?”

Peter : I had the most hectic day. I’m dead tired.

MJ: Tell me about it. I had back-to-back meetings all day. Tell you what, meetings are the most exhausting. You feel like you are working, but you are not.

Here MJ is trying to equate Peter’s problem with her own. It sounds like MJ understands Peter and is trying to help, but she isn’t. She is behaving like a narcissist thereby hijacking the whole conversation. It’s not about Peter anymore.

Sally: My boss shouted at me in front of everyone. It was so humiliating. I almost cried.

Harry: Who is this boss? Is she the new one who’s got an MBA from Harvard?

Harry may be hearing Sally, but he sure as hell isn’t listening. Apart from hearing we need to comprehend what’s being said and why it’s being said to understand it completely.

But what Harry is asking has nothing to do with what Sally is trying to say. His question serves the conversation that Harry is having with himself. “Who is this boss? Is she the new one? Yes, the new one was supposed to join a month back. Let me ask and confirm.” Instead of supporting Sally, Harry is shifting the conversation to another direction.

We praise the great orators and speakers, but never the listeners. That’s why we’ve raised a generation of people who can’t wait for their turn to speak. Instead of listening and trying to understand what the other person is trying to say, we jump at our turn to make our case—like a litigator.

While a bad listener can’t wait to say their line, a purposeful listener listens with intent, clarifies uncertain points, often paraphrases what is said, and asks the speaker to expand on certain points. Their primary purpose is to understand, not to respond.

Purposeful listeners look for cues in the body language and the emotional state of the speaker. They try to calibrate their response accordingly. If the speaker is heavy with rage, frustration, or sadness, being logical won’t help. If the speaker is looking for a solution then just being emotionally supportive won’t help. Purposeful listeners know the difference.

Listening with purpose is not trying to bring about a change in behaviour of the speaker. People don’t change so easily. Even if they change under the sway of strong emotions, this change isn’t permanent.

In a conversation, you may have easy answers to the speaker’s struggles. Listening with purpose means understanding their point of view, their logic, and their story without being judgemental and without getting enraged or frustrated.

If you listen to people without judgement they put their guards down and open up like a flower. They become more considerate and open to reason and change. This is how you help them.

Listening is one of the foundations of society. It’s how we form meaningful relationships and connections with other folks. And yet, we rarely treat listening—like reading and talking—as a skill that requires knowledge and practice.

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