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Active Listening

“Just listen” is horrible advice.

“Listen more.”

“Stop complaining.”

“The bell doesn’t dismiss you: I do.”

Let’s talk about the bell. You’re packing up your bags because you know class is about to end. You’re not the only one—zippers, uncapped pens, and notebooks sound off as Ms. Demeanor wraps up her lecture. That… really bothers her. She feels like the class is losing focus. She feels disrespected. Maybe she knows everybody is packing up because they want lunch, not because they don’t respect her, but it still hurts a bit. So when the bell rings and she has a few things left to say—and she sees her students standing up…

“The bell doesn’t dismiss you: I do.”

Ouch. The bell does dismiss us, that’s what it’s there for. The bell is the structure. If one teacher holds her students, the other teachers (or in this case, the lunch ladies) will get less time. Ms. Demeanor knows that. You know that. But now you’re hurt a bit. She’s angry, and she’s telling you what without telling you why. She sounds like she’s asserting her power, her authority—maybe in a way meant to demean you.

She’s not, really. She doesn’t have time to say, “Look, I respect your time, and it’s hurtful when I feel you don’t respect mine. When I hear you packing up before the bell rings—which I know you have a great, tomato-sauce-covered reason for—I feel like you’re ignoring me. I say ‘the bell doesn’t dismiss you’ because I’m angry about that, and I want you to stay a few minutes longer.” Or she doesn’t know she’s being dismissive, that her students would rather her explain herself.

Have you ever had a teacher who doesn’t yell much yell at your class? Really, really yell. You hear the pain in their voice and you realize they messed up. That pain is their why. It’s the emotion behind their action. After a yelling session like that, you’re not mad at the teacher (unless they go too far—I’m looking at you, Mr. Feloni), you’re just bummed out. They finally conveyed the reason they were unhappy.

We can avoid this tension on both sides. How? Just listen.

Here’s why. Active listening, or making a conscious effort to bring out the best in a conversation, allows you to:

  • understand someone’s why and better handle difficult, emotionally tense situations (we’ll focus on this for now)
  • have more fulfilling conversations where you get to fully hear other people’s stories—and experience the (surprising amount!) of serendipity that follows
  • discover new ideas, reach new conclusions, and help other do the same

Instead of arguing with someone, which tends to only entrench them in their point of view, let them do the talking.[1] Hear people out, make sure they know you’re hearing them, and ask questions to help you better understand their point of view. This page isn’t advocating for you to sit down with your former fourth grade teacher and hash things out, but it is offering a framework to handle future situations, help others more, and live a richer life (we promise).

Here are the basics. Don’t memorize these, please. Just give ‘em a read, and we’ll talk about them in practice. If you’re feeling ambitious, don’t read them yet: go listen to someone. An old person at the park, a tired barista during quieter hours, or your friend who hasn’t been to the doctor in five years—Aaron, have you been to the doctor lately? Come back and compare how you listened to the methods outlined here.[2]

  1. Focus on one issue— Don’t bring up the untreated asthma, the fear of needles, the avoidant tendencies, and the fear of being told they’re sick. Usually where there’s one issue, there are several: but you can’t fix them all at once. Talk about seeing the doctor and explore different aspects of the issue from there.

  2. Ask open-ended questions— Do not solicit or encourage yes and no responses.

  3. Tolerate silence— When the other person finishes talking, say nothing. Wait for them to continue with their train of thought. If you’re uncomfortable and can’t sit and wait, repeat the last few words they said.

  4. Give affirmations that foster positive feelings— Phrases like “That’s right” and “You’ve already made so much progress”

  5. If you are more comfortable with emotional labeling, tell the person how they sound— angry, depressed, and so forth.

  6. Summarize or paraphrase what the person has said. Say you’re in a conversation with a frequent drinker who says, “Well, I don't get much exercise. I'm penned up in an office most of the time, and when I'm stressed, I like to unwind with a few beers.” You might respond, “It's been hard for you to be active. Your job makes you feel a bit penned in. And when you're stressed, it relaxes you to have a few beers.

  7. Use minimal encouragers— “When?” “Really!” “Oh. Then what?”

  8. If they get too emotional or confrontational, use “I” messages— “I feel uneasy when you talk like that.”

Sometimes our perspective doesn’t match reality: in our first example, Ms. Demeanor feels her students don’t respect her for no good reason and her students feel she doesn’t respect them for no good reason. It’s almost always the situation—here a bad school environment with a draconian bell system—causing negativity on both sides. The students shouldn’t have started packing up and the teacher shouldn’t have wrung them out for it, but we’re using this example because it’s common. Many people have been in this situation! Great people! Terrible people! The only common factor is the situation.

Everybody has a reason for the way they’re acting, even if it’s an irrational one. By understanding other people’s reasons we can improve the (often toxic) situation and change bad behavior: when we listen, we’ll see whether we need to change or they do. Then we make change! But darn, that’s even harder. To do that, we’ll need to go beyond just listening—I’m talking about motivational interviewing.

  • If you want to learn more about different situations where active listening is valuable, jump to
    • Meeting people!
    • Teaching people!
    • Learning from people!
    • Having harder conversations!
  • If you want practice, try:
    • One of the exercises we outlined earlier (old person at the park, tired barista during quieter hours, your friend who hasn’t been to the doctor)
    • Buy food for the homeless, then actively listen to them for a while. It usually makes their day!
    • Talking to people about voting. friends, family—if you see they are not voting (or voting for something you disagree with), try to get to the root of it by practicing active listening and withholding any of your opinions (even if the other person says extreme stuff - you can have that conversation later.)