To listen, you have to stop talking

Recently I had a visitor, a young man inquiring as to whether I was aware of the relatively new health facility at Belconnen. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I visited it recently.’ The Young Man then segued onto what I thought were the likely issues for this year’s ACT election. ‘Probably public transport,’ I responded, perplexed at this transition. A closer look at his T-shirt led me to conclude that this was a political party volunteer, not a person doing a survey on behalf of the health facility.

The Young Man asked me whether I supported the light rail project. ‘In principle, yes, but the reports keep raising doubts.’ Now a person interested in what a voter thinks about issues might then ask some well-crafted questions to elicit insight into their thinking. Instead I copped a diatribe of the Young Man’s support for the project, leaving no doubt as to where his interests lay. I politely suggested he could move on to the next house, which he cheerfully did, not realising his lost opportunity.

Yes, it is difficult to restrain oneself from dumping all the evidence supporting your views on someone who has doubts. However, this neither persuades nor changes a person’s views. Rather, it tends to reinforce existing views.

This is the fine line people cross between talking with someone and ceasing to listen. A skilled listener will continue to explore a person’s views in order to more fully understand their thinking. An unskilled listener starts talking as soon as there’s any sign lack of agreement appears on the scene, trying to convince the other of the merits of their own view.

The likely response to this behaviour is to perceive lack of interest at minimum, raising questions about the person’s intent, particularly if they expressed an interest in consulting, engaging, or learning about your views at the outset.

So if you find yourself in a situation like The Young Man, holding strong views, supporting a position, and keen to hear others’ views, stop and ask yourself: If I should hear any view I don’t like, disagree with, or find ridiculous, will I start talking, or listen more? You know the ‘right’ answer is the latter. What you actually do may well be the former.

In order to switch to listening, some mindfulness is needed. Recognise what you are hearing. Remind yourself of your intent – to listen and learn.

Develop some skills in:

  • Asking quality questions that elicit further insight into a person’s thinking.
  • Active listening – focus on what the person is saying, take an interest in the person, despite your inner reactions.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.