Listening is the quantifiable measure of emotional intelligence. Good listeners stay with you forever.
I remember working as an intern with an artist named Jonathan. I did menial jobs around his studio, and did so happily.
What strikes me most of all as I think back on that time I was sweeping floors and organising files was how comfortable and happy I felt in Jonathan’s presence.
He was mild and thoughtful; a little slow to answer any questions, but he had a disarming ability to make you confident to share.
Jonathan liked me to tell him stories as he worked. He wasn’t so much keen on facts or ideas, he wanted to know what made me tick.
He wanted to know about me and my background, what made me what I was at that time. As I spoke he asked me questions that zoomed into and unpacked particular pinch points in my stories. “That’s interesting,” he’d say as a lead up to a question, making me bloom a little more.
Those questions and their answers gave both of us a better understanding of the emotional shades to my decisions and actions, and my feelings about them at the time I was talking. Even details I thought were trivial were rinsed in importance by his sporadic and mildly asserted questions.
What was a cathartic process for me was a learning experience for him. I may have been a naive young man fifteen years his junior, but we all have something to teach, and that’s a feeling he left me with.
In all that time I was talking he was also thinking about his own life decisions; the ones he had made, and those he had yet to make.
Listening is an act of kindness, it’s also a chance to learn.
We live in a golden age of information. A palm-sized device with an internet connection packs a library of knowledge that could fill the Empire State Building many times over.
But it’s important to remind ourselves that there is a qualitative as well as quantitative dimension to information.
An article on a webpage is just a string of letters and numbers arranged into words and sentences. Written language is code.
The people in front of us can be the most powerful source of information because to learn from a person is to form an emotional connection. No matter how fleeting your exchange may be, that emotional connection could stay with you for a long time.
It’s no secret that human to human connection makes a deeper impression, it’s why businesses fly their staff thousands of miles to make deals, rather than teleconferencing.
Feeling the warmth of a somebody’s palm and the firmness of their grip builds a deep trust and forms lasting bonds. But what we often overlook is the power of being a good listener.
I’ve met many good talkers, they’re full of stories and jokes, often full of wisdom and warmth, and I remember them gladly. But it’s the listeners, those who open up a space for our yearning to share our experiences that have made me the person I am today.
The more you listen, the more you’ll understand yourself. I read somewhere that freedom is the wave realising it’s the ocean. Soaking up the thoughts of others is a sure-fire way to come ever closer to that realisation.
Conversely, the philosopher Richard Rorty pointed out that the unwillingness to listen is a recurring marker of the monstrosity of Humbert, the erudite child molester in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita — a novel that otherwise skirts around a clear “moral message”.
Don’t wait to talk
I can be a terrible listener. When the pandemic hit, and it was harder to communicate freely with people, I was caught out by my ineptitude.
I decided to work on listening and picked up some pointers on the way. The first principle to remember is that listening is win-win, both yourself and the speaker are set to benefit from your attentiveness to what they have to say.
Often we fall into the trap of “waiting to talk”: instead of listening to what somebody has to say, we’re too busy thinking of what we want to say.
The best way to avoid this is to promise yourself you’ll only ask them questions. This will make what they have to say — and your learning experience — your total focus.
Pay attention to the non-verbal, or sub-verbal tones and nuances, these can signal the willingness to be questioned. For example, your speaker may wince slightly as she finishes a sentence, betraying that there’s something more to know but not yet unpacked to be said.
Listen to them intently, suspend your judgement — save your moralising and your standards for yourself. Give them time, don’t say a word unless it’s a question to delve a little deeper into what they have to impart.
When you’re done listening, take a mental inventory of what you’ve learned from listening. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ve learned not only about that person but about yourself too.
There’s a beautiful proverb in Matthew, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Today, seek your treasure in other people, make somebody feel special today.