The tricky, but necessary, art of listening Premium

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In our world of constant digital communication and networking, our ability to listen has never been so poor. Yet listening is what enables us to really connect with others in order to learn, understand, and cooperate.

Listening isnt in fashion right now. It is considered gratuitous and time-consuming; it involves paying attention to someone else and putting personal interests on standby. These are the exact opposite of the qualities we feel are required to survive in our current, hyper-reactive environment, which demands immediate performance and intense self-promotion.  

Because our brains are programmed to ensure our survival, stepping back in order to listen is not an option we rate highly. But, according to author Kate Murphy, the long-term benefits of listening are real: it improves discussions, boosts confidence, stimulates teamwork, and leads to better negotiations and human relations in a broad sense.  

 

Why won’t we listen? 

Does listening seem difficult? Thats perfectly normal  our neurons arent wired for it. We think much faster than speech,1 so our attention soon begins to wander when listening to someone else. This problem is exacerbated by new technology, whose constant demands have reduced our attention span to eight seconds. Whats more, with remote communication, we miss out on the essential, nonverbal signs needed for listening. Our cognitive biases muddy the waters even further. We think we can guess in advance what people we know are going to say (closeness-communication bias2). But we also tend to prejudge what strangers are going to say because we judge them on their appearance (confirmation bias3). The result in both cases is the same: before they have even opened their mouths, we overestimate what we know about others, we underestimate the risks of misunderstanding, and we listen badly. Furthermore, our reptilian brains generate stress when faced with someone elses comments, considered potential threats. When it comes to someone supporting a point of view opposite of our own, its even worse; our amygdala goes into panic mode, seriously interfering with our ability to listen.4 Finally, our inner voice  negative or positive  always colors our perception of what the other person is saying. This element of subjectivity damages impartial listening. 

 

The secret: knowing how to shift your focus away from yourself …  

 

1. “Listening to People” (Harvard Business Review, 1957), Interpersonal Communication: Building Connections Together by Teri Kwal Gamble and Michael W. Gamble (SAGE Publications Inc., 2013).

2. “The Closeness Communication Bias: Increased Egocentrism Among Friends versus Strangers” (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2011).

3. “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises” (Review of General Psychology 2, #2, 1998).

4. The Emotional Brain: the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life by Joseph LeDoux, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). 

Excerpt from Business Digest N°304, March 2020

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What if you took the time to listen ?

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Benoit Chalifoux, ESG UQAM

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