The Lost Art of Listening & 4 Ways to Find It

This article originally appeared on the AICPA CIMA blog, as part of its Human Intelligence Series. A Facebook Live video is also available. The article also appears on LinkedIn

I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I'm going to learn, I must do it by listening. – Larry King

Amazon lists twice as many books on “speaking” as it does on “listening.” You’ll find around 20,000 books for “listening” and over 40,000 books for “speaking.” We are so concerned about what we say that the market has given us what we’ve asked for – thousands more books on how to speak well and make our point with our mouth.

Yet we have two ears and one mouth. Think about the last conversation you had at work or in life. How much of it was spent waiting on your turn to speak? Or how much of it was spent truly listening to the person sharing his or her thoughts, opinions, and ideas?

ARE WE JUST HEARING, OR REALLY LISTENING?

We’ve been heading to a discouraging place for some time as a culture, when it comes to our collective listening skills. It’s easy to blame the smartphone, but that’s only a part of the story. For thousands of years before the television debuted, we learned, were entertained and became generally solid human beings through listening. As time progressed, and especially over the last few decades, we’ve become less skilled at listening as a culture. We jump to conclusions more, we don’t allow others to speak as much as we have before, we apply easy labels to the things we don’t agree with…the list goes on and on.

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Google Trends shows that about 30% more searches happening over the last five years for the phrase “speaking” vs. “listening.” No surprises here, either. We are often compensated based on how good of a communicator we are. More often than not, the unintended subtext of that phrase is how good of a speaker we are. In the business environment, listening well is not quite as easy a path to promotion. It’s not as noticeable.

Two recent books published on listening capture the general sentiment well: Listening: The Forgotten Skill and The Lost Art of Listening. Those are pretty harsh words – a “forgotten skill” and a “lost art” – for something that was once vital to our thriving as humans. The most amazing thing about these two books? They were both published before the smartphone took off, which really sent our listening skills over the cliff.

INSIGHT

As a market researcher, I am hired to uncover and express insights into human nature. Clients want to know how or why a new product will be adapted (or not) by customers, how or why a web experience needs to change, or how or why a communications message will resonate with potential customers. In this quest, it’s all about listening – but not just listening. It’s all about finding insight. The insight is the often unspoken but strongly felt thing that compels consumers to do what they do and to think what they think.

In other professional services businesses, gaining insight into your clients’ motivations might be the difference between happy clients and no clients. What should you look for in these types of client relationships? Be on the hunt for verbal ticks (e.g., the phrase “to be honest”), body language cues, and things that are said or not said, which give insight into the true intent of what’s being said. Emotional intelligence doesn’t happen by accident. That insight is gained by being an engaged listener in conversation.

LISTENING FOR INSIGHT

The World Economic Forum says that by 2020 , we will have entered a Fourth Industrial Revolution, one in which the skills needed to thrive will be drastically different than those in the past.

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New skills such as cognitive flexibility and emotional intelligence are on the list of skills for tomorrow. Emotional intelligence requires great listening. The difference between simply active listening and emotional intelligence is listening for insight – hearing the deeper meaning of things. Listening is still relevant today, but the context has changed.

You might expect listening for insight to be one simple step beyond normal listening, but in reality, listening for insight is much harder. It means listening so hard that it becomes exhausting for the listener. Listening for insight is the equivalent of going for a run for your brain – it hurts and is tough to do for too long at one time.

How do we do it? Michael P. Nichols says, “Listening well is often silent but never passive” (The Lost Art of Listening). A good listener internalizes the words and emotions of the other person, feeling what they say and how they say it. We should be internalizing the things they said that interest us – taking notes in our minds. We should be asking follow-up questions. We shouldn’t let an answer go by without reaching out with a follow-up question and digging into the thought more.

Listening for insight is part leaning into a conversation and part asking more beautiful questions, to paraphrase the poet E.E. Cummings. The thing is, if you’re going to ask a question, ready yourself for the response and be ready to do something with it.

4 WAYS TO GET BETTER AT LISTENING FOR INSIGHT

Agatha Christie said, “the secret of getting ahead is getting started.” Here are a few quick things to consider as you start down the path of listening for insight.

1) Learn from the best. I’ve been coaching youth sports for years. To help our baseball team improve their hitting, I will often show them slow-motion videos of the best major-league players at bat. In a similar fashion, profile the best listener you know. Who are they? What is it like to be with that person? What can you learn from that person about listening? What are 3-4 specific things that person does that makes them such a good listener?

2) Be curious. Be genuinely interested in understanding the other person’s point-of-view, even if it’s in sharp disagreement with yours. Lean in and don’t let one-word answers or ambiguous words fly by your ears without asking a follow-up question. Words like “mostly,” “kind of,” “value,” “quality,” etc. While someone is talking, think about the deeper meaning of their words. What is truly different or interesting about what they’re saying?

3) Ask better questions. To get to better insights in your conversations, improve your questions. Use open-ended questions to allow people to tell stories and open up in their answers. Instead of asking the typical “what’s up?” which leads to the typical mumbled “not much,” instead ask about a specific thing in that person’s life. “How did you get into what you do?” or “What are you most excited about for the next year?” These types of questions will open up avenues for story and exploration. You’ll end this kind of conversation with much better insight.

4) Listen more often. When I first started listening to audiobooks and podcasts a few years ago, it was truly exhausting. The listening stamina required was more than I had to give. I was only able to listen in 20-minute spurts. Then, over time, the 20 minutes grew to 45, then to listening over a three-hour car ride. Don’t get discouraged. Start small and use audio of people speaking to train your brain to listen better.

FOR MORE...

Here are four amazing resources to explore on the topic of listening for insight:

Are You Listening?

We Need to Talk

Just Listen

Thanks for the Feedback

Josh Carlton is the Founder of 500THz, a boutique market research firm that delights in using creativity to solve business problems. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

josh carlton