What kept me up last night started with my frustration with a person at the gym.
The slight trick in the question is that, by asking you what you were hearing, I prompted your brain to take control of the sensory experience — and made you listen rather than just hear. That, in effect, is what happens when an event jumps out of the background enough to be perceived consciously rather than just being part of your auditory surroundings. The difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening is ATTENTION.
This is because hearing has evolved as our alarm system — it operates out of line of sight and works even while you are asleep. And because there is no place in the universe that is totally silent, your auditory system has evolved a complex and automatic “volume control,” fine-tuned by development and experience, to keep most sounds off your cognitive radar unless they might be of use as a signal that something dangerous or wonderful is somewhere within the kilometer or so that your ears can detect.
More complex attention kicks in when you hear your name called from across a room or hear an unexpected birdcall from inside a subway station. This stimulus-directed attention is controlled by pathways through the temporoparietal and inferior frontal cortex regions, mostly in the right hemisphere — areas that process the raw, sensory input, but don’t concern themselves with what you should make of that sound. (Neuroscientists call this a “bottom-up” response.)
But when you actually pay attention to something you’re listening to, whether it is your favorite song or the cat meowing at dinnertime, a separate “top-down” pathway comes into play. Here, the signals are conveyed through a dorsal pathway in your cortex, part of the brain that does more computation, which lets you actively focus on what you’re hearing and tune out sights and sounds that aren’t as immediately important.
In this case, your brain works like a set of noise-suppressing headphones, with the bottom-up pathways acting as a switch to interrupt if something more urgent — say, an airplane engine dropping through your bathroom ceiling — grabs your attention.
And yet we dare not lose it. Because listening tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the nonvisual parts of our world feeds into everything from our intellectual sharpness to our dance skills.
Luckily, we can train our listening just as with any other skill. Listen to new music when jogging rather than familiar tunes. Listen to your dog’s whines and barks: he is trying to tell you something isn’t right. Listen to your significant other’s voice — not only to the words, which after a few years may repeat, but to the sounds under them, the emotions carried in the harmonics. You may save yourself a couple of fights.
A wise old owl lived in an oak,
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird? – unknown author
Yes, we were all taught (hopefully) to listen to our parents and to listen in school. However, few of us were taught good listening—the active, disciplined kind of listening that helps us examine and challenge the information we hear in order to improve its quality and quantity, and thereby improve our decision-making.
Mind Reading – Assuming you already know what the person is going to say while ignoring him/her and without bothering to ask questions to confirm your belief.
Rehearsing – No way to hear when you are practicing your next lines in your head.
Filtering – The only thing you’re going to hear is what you want to hear, nothing else.
Judging – You’ve already determined that the person speaking has no value for you, so you don’t bother to pay attention to what he/she says.
Dreaming – Something half heard sends you off into your own little world to think about a similar aspect in your own life.
Identifying – As someone shares an experience, you relate it back to your own life.
Advising – Before someone can explain, you are offering advice. You completely miss the point, the feelings and the scope, and leave the person feeling misunderstood.
Sparring – You listen, but only for something to disagree with, argue over or debate.
Being Right – You will rationalize, make excuses, shout or accuse the speaker of anything you can think of just to avoid being wrong.
Derailing – Bored or uncomfortable about what is said, you change the subject.
Placating – No matter what is said, you agree. You listen just enough to catch the places where you can agree.
Effective Listening (Do)
Now, here is a short list of tips to effective or empathic listening. You probably already do a lot of these, especially when the person and the conversation are particularly interesting to you. See if you can ‘catch’ yourself using any of these. Then, see if you can use them at will.
Acknowledge the speaker by being attentive, genuinely interested, alert and positive. Be in the moment and focused.
Show you are listening with “uh-huh”, nod your head, lean forward in a relaxed way, make frequent eye contact, and invite more to explore with open-ended questions.
Be a sounding board and a mirror by restating what is said in your own words. Let the speaker dominate the conversation.