Listening is Hard

Listening is difficult and underappreciated, at least in English. After reading the chapter on Listening in Looking out, Looking in, I looked around on the web to see if I could find additional research like I had for some of the prior chapters. I didn’t really find anything; a simple google for listening courses vs speaking courses shows a little over twice as many hits for speaking; furthermore the top hits for listening are all for people who do not have english as a primary language. Perhaps this is related to English cultures being low context, individualistic, and generally oriented away from the inner qualities of subjective experience. I don’t know enough about other linguistic groups to know if the same bias is present elsewhere.

The book suggests that most people overestimate their capability at listening. On the one hand this seems in line with people’s general inability to self-asses, but on the other listening seems particularly difficult to self-assess; the speaker’s assesment of one’s listening is a large measure of success, and failure at listening almost invariably means that the failed listening event will not be as accurately remembered as an excellent listening experience, which generates a selection bias.

That being said, I notice that the quality of my listening varies wildly. I’m prone to inattention due to preoccupation and I’m very prone to assume what someone wants out of my listening. Another thing I’ve done a lot is what the book calls “stage-hogging”, or turning the conversational topic over to something that happened to me. In my defense, I had long held the opinion that people wanted some confirmation that you have enough shared experience to be empathetic, so I would often relate something they were talking about to something that happened to me.

Improving my listening is going to take some work, because all of these problems are ones I’ve had for a while, and a few of them – like assuming that someone wants me to suggest solutions when they talk to me about a problem – I find myself falling into even though I have long been aware that people are often not interested in hearing a fix.

One way I’ve tried to improve my listening is by making fewer statements and asking more questions. The danger I have encountered is I often ask leading questions that direct someone towards a fix I have in mind for their problem.

In order to improve my listening skills, it seems apparent that I should try to find ways to get feedback as to what sort of interaction the speaker is looking for. Since I don’t know of any really good ways to do this, I should make the default assumption that they do not want me to solve their problem. Furthermore, when they ask for my opinion on something, I need to be more careful about trying to answer not using my personal opinion, but from my understanding of who they are as a person and the context of the situation they’re in. I’ll also be on the lookout for more information about listening.

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