Seth Godin wrote a blog post on how to listen. I’m a big fan of Seth, but some of his pointers don’t go into enough detail to be helpful to 99% of humans, most of whom are poor listeners. In fact, some of them could easily be misconstrued and taken literally make worse listeners. Like telling someone to lift weights to be stronger, but failing to mention the specific points of safety in exercise.
What I agree with: listening is important, it is a competitive advantage, pay back with enthusiasm, don’t challenge the speaker, challenge the idea, if you disagree, wait a few moments before interrupting and good listeners get better speakers (as in, the people that are being listened to will up their speaking game).
What I have issues with: play back what you hear in your own words, in your own situation, don’t ask questions as much as make statements, make what they’re saying the foundation of your next idea, if you disagree – explain why, and that the best way to honor someone is say something smart and useful back.
Why do I have issues with some of those statements? Mostly because taken literally, it makes the experience of listing about the listener. The goal of listening is not to make yourself seem smarter or prove a point, but to really understand what the other person is saying. It’s can be good to play back what you hear in your own words or situation, and asking questions or making statements can also be good, but only if the goal is to ensure that you are succeeding at listening. That’s why if you disagree, the first step should be to make sure you understand what they’re saying.
While I agree that good conversation builds upon itself and you should make what they’re saying the foundation of your next idea, that is a conversation skill not a listening skill. If what you’re doing is taking what they’re saying and then inserting your own ideas, you’re not really focused on them, and you’re turning it back on yourself.
All these gripes aside, I think there is a lot of truth to what Seth was saying. If I were to rephrase these for better consumption it would be:
The goal of listening should be to understand what the person is saying. If you feel unsure, it’s handy to play back what you’re hearing with your own words or situation, and get confirmation. Making a statement followed with “is that what you mean?” can be an extremely powerful tool. If the listening is part of a conversation, then making sure you’re building on their thoughts and ideas and not just taking your own tangents is powerful. If you find yourself disagreeing, first use the above tools to make sure you’re on the same page.
The best way to honor someone is to truly, deeply, and authentically listen to their words, body language, and emotions.