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The Discipline of Listening

13th May 2019 by Matt Steptoe

TSA listening

As recruiters, listening is one of our essential skills. TSA has always insisted on putting people before profit, and a huge part of that is encouraging active listening from our consultants. Because of this, we know first-hand the awesome power listening can exert on lives.

Sadly, that power is not always wielded as it ought to be.

60% of our communication time is spent listening, yet on average we only digest 25% of what we hear.


Clearly, there’s a long way to go.

Of all the facets of life that listening affects, the most vital might just be mental health. Breaking stigmas attached to suffering is crucial, as are improving resources and public information. However, individuals cultivating the ability to truly listen, digest and emphasise could be just as powerful a weapon in combating the staggering challenges mental health presents.

We all understand there’s such a thing as a ‘good listener’, but we tend to imagine it as a fixed quality – some have it, others don’t.

In truth, however, listening is a discipline.

With sufficient effort and the proper mindset, we can train ourselves to listen better just as you might train physically to build muscle or improve stamina.


There are several reasons we overlook this.

For one, it’s always easier to ignore things which are difficult, and listening requires levels of patience and attention which many of us find deeply taxing. On top of that, we simply don’t hear what we don’t hear, meaning we might never have noticed how rarely we’re truly listening.

Listening is a complex, multifaceted activity, and it isn’t clear how to practise doing it. With our experience, however, we’ve compiled a simple, five step system to help anyone improve their listening.  

Consciously developing your capacity to listen can have widespread impact on the quality of  your relationships, your career attainments and your own mental health. But most importantly, it can enable you to better help those around you who might be in need of a sympathetic ear to lean on.


Clear your mind

Most of our time is spent overloaded by stimulus: whether actively thinking or not, there’s a high probability you spend almost no time in genuine silence. This means that when you are being spoken to, your brain is still buzzing, taking up precious processing power which could be used to absorb what’s being said.

The first step towards authentic listening, therefore, is to clear your mind. Mindfulness techniques like meditation or yoga can be useful for this. However, for those cynically disposed to such things, simple measures like turning off your phone, improving your sleep patterns or putting aside a few minutes each day to spend in silence can have an immense impact.

The key is to understand that a clear mind is not inactive or somehow complacent. Rather, it is simply un-distracted from its default mode of perpetually shifting attention.

It can be easy to assume we don’t pay attention to things because they are boring; it is more likely, however, that we find things boring because we don’t pay attention to them. By constantly emptying your mind of distraction, not only will you become a more attentive listener – you will begin to notice how fascinating the people around you are.


Listen to understand, not respond

People don’t listen, they simply wait for their turn to talk. Something of a cliché, but there is truth buried in the cynicism. We have things we want to say or have recognised; we have things we want to avoid and so engage in a kind of conversational chess. 

However, genuine listening requires you to be comfortable not knowing what you’re going to say next, what question you might ask or where the conversation may head. Instead, your sole aim whilst your colleague speaks must be to understand and absorb what they say.

For many of us, this might seem needlessly limiting, and perhaps make us feel vulnerable. But resisting the urge to think about your impending response will not only help keep your mind clear but also help make your colleague feel heard. And think about it: listening with the sole intention of understanding what is being communicated makes conversation blissfully simple.

The more you listen this way, the better you will notice when motives other than ‘understand’ enter your mind. And being able to observe these impulses will not only make you a better listener – it will help you better understand yourself and your relationships.


Signal your engagement

Being present and engaged is essential, but it is also important that your colleague is aware of your engagement and feels your presence. For this reason, it is essential you are mindful of signalling to them that you are listening and understanding.

This can be as simple as maintaining eye contact, or agreeing with your colleague when they make an assertion. Equally, subtly mirroring your colleague’s body language and mannerisms is a fantastic way to subconsciously signal alignment in a non-intrusive way.

Now, it might appear that consciously signalling is at odds with maintaining a clear mind: surely it pulls attention away from what is being said. However, these signalling techniques can all be habituated so they become instinctive; equally, they are in fact often natural by-products of the previous steps.

If you do, however, fear this conflict, asking questions can be a great way of both signalling engagement and ensuring you understand what is being said. Asking for clarification, making relevant associations or just gently probing your colleague’s feelings about a topic can all help demonstrate that your attention is theirs and theirs alone.


Pause before responding

Because you are focusing purely on understanding your colleague, when the time comes to respond you will have to organise your thoughts. While many of us feel pressured to fill silence in conversations, not replying immediately can be important in demonstrating that you have truly considered your response.

Genuine listening is a process of thoughtful consideration, and immediately responding can cut the process short. Being comfortable in this silence, feeling the attention of your colleague as intimate rather than pressuring, is key.

Pausing, of course, also functions as an extra signal to your colleague. It shows you consider what they said worthy of consideration. And it almost certainly results in a more thoughtful, sincere, and authentic response when you do.


Summarise what you’ve heard

In many instances, before giving your response, you may actually find it beneficial to summarise what’s just been said. This is particularly effective in relationships and during disputes, but it can be just as useful in a working situation where it is essential for both parties to be on the same page.

Laying out what you feel your colleague has just expressed is a great way to demonstrate both your understanding and engagement, as well as avoiding potential miscommunications. It can be a great way of giving yourself the space for a pause if you feel uncomfortable in silence, too.

Equally, you can use it as a way of responding to what has been said in a clear and orderly way. It may even be that it is in summarising what you have just been told that you realise what you think and feel about it. And that, really, is the whole point of listening, isn’t it?


By considering these steps, and consciously rehearsing them when you interact with people, we can all become better, more natural, and more present listeners. And this week more than ever, it is so important that we all remember quite how much is at stake every time somebody chooses us to be their listener.


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