The art of listening

Seems like such a strange concept — the art of listening. Listening is a completely automatic response, I mean, when you have a conversation you listen, right?

Illustration of someone sitting down listening to someone else talk.
Illustration of someone sitting down listening to someone else talk.

To hear or to listen

Oxford languages define listening as ‘giving one’s attention to a sound’, while the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries both define listening as ‘to give attention to someone or something in order to hear him, her’. I find this distinction really interesting and important. Listening as a word in the English language means to hear a sound, whereas the act of listening is so much more. The act of listening involves cognitive ability, understanding and sometimes empathy.

The way I think of this is like having a conversation with someone about the weather. That’s fine, right? Easy enough, we‘ve all done it… Now try having the same conversation with someone who you don’t share a language with. You are still hearing the conversation, however, now that you lack the cognitive connection and understanding, you can’t effectively listen.

Types of listening

There are many different types of listening and not all are about human interaction, as an example, appreciative listening happens when you are listening to music or poetry and are seeking a connective element that causes appreciation. The types I am going to talk through here are a few that I think are the most useful and effective with human interaction and effective communication. These types of listening are malleable, they aren’t boxes to be defined with an outline. Each one of the skills that are needed to effectively listen requires constant development to separate our natural environment and personality-based biases.

Listening is a learned and improvable behaviour.

Non-judgemental listening

Non-judgemental listening is something I have come across recently in my Mental Health First Aid training. Seems like such a simple concept, but I think we all forget to do this and really, how difficult it is. In this space, you need to forget every physical, emotional and environmental factor you’ve ever shaped your personality and morals from. You need to be so exposed that you can consume yourself with empathy but also closed off enough to not include your own biases within the conversation.

Learning this type of listening helped me in ways that I ever expected. I am someone who cares a lot for people and will put other peoples wellbeing above my own time and time again. With that all-consuming care, all barriers are down. When you help someone emotionally, you don’t separate that issue from yourself, you take the weight on. This style of listening offers you a definitive separation in which you can help people without affecting your own mental health.

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Active listening

This type of listening is amazingly difficult considering at its core, it’s just a conversation. You are conversing and the conversation is flowing from comment to comment in a natural progression. Active listening is a behaviour in which you attentively listen while paraphrasing and reflecting back what is said while withholding any judgement, advice or bias.

As human beings, we look for feedback and confirmation within our interactions. We look for those moments when we connect by having a shared opinion, experience or interest. With active listening, you are effectively a blank slate and this sometimes can cause the conversation to feel cold and uninviting so it’s good to develop skills here to keep the conversation positive and flowing.

This type of listening is used heavily within things like interviews and user research. When testing new products and ideas with a customer, as you can imagine, we don’t want to sway their opinions. We need to essentially be invisible while being present in the conversation — keep the user talking and sharing their experience without sharing any influential language. All the while, keeping the conversation from falling into a monosyllabic upheaval.

Reflective listening

It can be difficult to distinguish reflecting listening from active listening as they have many of the same traits and techniques. Reflective listening is a more specialised form of listening, it involves two key steps: seeking to understand an idea, then offering the idea back, to confirm the idea has been understood correctly.

One of the notable differences in reflective listening is the addition of psychological techniques to mimic the speaker. Body language, posture, facial expressions and terminology are all mirrored to make the speaker feel more heard. After all, it’s easier to connect with someone when you feel like they understand you completely.

Comprehensive listening

This behaviour can simply be described as listening to learn. It’s interestingly not something that you can force yourself to do. You can, however, learn to learn. Ever heard someone having a conversation about a subject that you know absolutely nothing about? You can understand what they are saying but it means nothing to you. Comprehensive listening is the ability to make meaning out of words and conversations rather than merely hearing the words separately. It’s the difference between hearing and listening.

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Are we losing the ability to listen?

According to Kommando Tech, millennials are on their phones for a rediculous 5.7 hours per day, with the average adult spending just over 3 hours per day on their phones. We spend so much time with our heads in our phones, computers and watching TV that the outside world all but ceases to exist. Along with this, we are generally consumed with our own thoughts and anxieties that it’s difficult to take in any stimulants from the world that surrounds us.

In losing the art of listening, we lose the ability to effectively communicate. Without effective communication, we struggle to share our ideas, opinions and experiences, as well as seek meaningful connections — but really, isn’t that what we seek within technology and life itself?

So I ask you, are you losing the art of listening?

Written by

UX designer, accessibility champion and mental health first aider and advocate.

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