Why most people can’t listen and what it takes to get better
Whatever your field, one skill is more valuable more than any other: listening.
Want to improve your product? Learn to listen. Want to get better at marketing or sales? Learn to listen. Relationships, people management, fundraising — learn to listen and you’ll improve at them all.
And yet, real listening is rare.
Like meditation, listening sounds easy but staying focused on another person’s thoughts is often as tricky as trying to sit quietly, focused on your breathing. Your own thoughts keep bubbling up, and soon, you’re thinking about something completely different.
If you search for ‘listening skills’ on Google, you’ll find plenty of articles telling you to lean in, tilt your head to one side, and repeat back what you hear. But this isn’t necessarily listening — it just gives the impression you’re listening.
Most advice on listening is the equivalent of teaching meditation by saying, ‘Sit on the floor, close your eyes, and shut up.’
Like any other skill, listening requires practice, but the benefits can be huge. I genuinely believe that the one thing holding most people back is their failure to effectively listen. So, here’s how you can improve.
There are three levels of difficulty for listening, from easy to hard:
By labelling each level, you can begin to notice which one you’re listening at — and then make a conscious choice to move up to the next one.
Let’s look at the three levels in a bit more detail.
Conscious thought is characterised by ‘that little voice in your head’. It’s the voice of your thoughts and it’s how you make sense of the world. It frequently has a lot to say.
Often, the voice will pop up while you’re listening to someone. Sometimes, it wants to think through how you’re going to respond: ‘Ha, they haven’t realised that X is a false assumption. Boy, I can’t wait to tell them.’ Other times, you might just lose interest and the little voice will produce a random thought: ‘Did I leave my keys in the car?’
It’s really easy to fall into Level 1. Whenever you notice your inner voice, it’s time to move up a level.
Imagine you’re on a first date and it’s going well. You’re hanging on every word so intently you wouldn’t notice if a giant Panda started playing the banjo in a corner of the room.
Welcome to Level 2. This is a big improvement on Level 1 since you’re actually paying attention, without any little voice to distract you.
And yet, you’re so engaged with the other person’s words you don’t realise they keep looking at their watch and they didn’t order dessert. So when they text you to say ‘let’s just be friends’, it comes as a surprise.
There’s something missing.
This is the gold standard of listening. If you were speaking with a Shaolin monk, this is probably how they’d be listening to you. And it’s hard to achieve.
When you talk with your partner, you listen to their words, but you also observe their body language, notice what they aren’t saying, and make meaning from the wider context. When Mr Panda plays the banjo, you hear him without losing focus on your partner. You’re like Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix. You’re fully aware.
Global listening isn’t a natural state. It’s learned through conditioning, like a boxer who conditions themselves to step into a punch. It’s counterintuitive but it can save you from getting knocked out.
Next time you’re listening to someone, practice developing an awareness of which Level you’re in (note: this awareness itself usually means you’re in Level 1). Then, force yourself to switch off the inner voice and reach for a higher level of listening.
And what about those tips, like tilting your head and repeating back? Don’t worry about those — because when you’re really listening, it’ll be obvious to everybody.
Thoughtful essays on growing teams, building products and raising money by Serial Entrepreneur and Investor, David Bailey.