Listening is important. We are constantly searching for better ways to offer practical tips, meaningful strategies, and passionate reasons to help people improve their listening. But what are some of the problems we encounter in this process? How can we best convey knowledge and excitement about listening?
Let me begin by reviewing some techniques I found on the internet: restating, summarizing, minimal encouragers, reflecting, and emotional labeling. Now what happens if we use these techniques to respond to “I love you”?
Restating — “You’re making a declaration of your feelings about me!”
Summarizing — “So it sounds to me as if you have strong feelings for me.”
Minimal encouragers — “Umm-hmmm,” “Oh?” “I understand,” “Then?” “And?”
Reflecting — “This seems really important to you…”
Emotion labeling — “I’m sensing that you’re feeling romantic…”
It’s a disaster, right? To be fair, it’s easy to cherry pick counter examples, and some would say that “I love you” are the three most powerful words in English. Nevertheless, it does expose some issues.
First, techniques have limitations and cannot be blindly applied. In any art form, the story drives the use of techniques. A good movie director doesn’t insist on using a panning shot or lens flare in every scene. A director deploys different techniques to serve the story. Similarly, a good listener cannot insist on restating and summarizing no matter what the speak is saying.
Adhering too closely to techniques also makes the listener’s responses seem mechanical and formulaic. That’s why it’s so easy to parody bad psychologists. Just repeat, “Tell me how you feel” a few times.
Second, limiting the discussion to techniques alone tends to make the subject boring. Nobody will argue that grammar and punctuation are important. But we’re not going to inspire legions of writers by talking about prepositions and commas alone.
Almost everyone I've encountered who’s serious about listening has powerful and personal reasons for being so passionate about the subject. We've certainly experienced bad listening, but more importantly, we've see what good listening can do. In the words of Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, we've experienced “the inexpressible comfort… of having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words.”
When it comes to listening, we need to talk about techniques in context, attitudes with concrete examples and strategies, and the benefits with passion. Only then can we inspire millions.
Author John Barth once said, “My feeling about technique in art is that it has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. Heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity.” Let’s all talk about listening with more passionate virtuosity!