In the last several years I have found that many people lack a clear understanding of what is involved in the task of conversation– particularly regarding the art of listening. While this is not a wholly gendered issue, I have found that many men in particular lack the simple skills they need to successfully converse with women on a social level. If you’re unsure if there is a problem, just google “man listening to woman” in comparison to “friends talking.” The images alone speak volumes about a problem of equity in our society that is as simple as understanding how to listen well. After reading the 35 Practical Steps Men can Take to Support Feminism and discussing with several friends item #2 (Share Emotional Labor), I considered that in many ways, most people are not provided direct instruction on how to do this task.
Given that I learned the art of conversation by reading up on the matter, and by taking a class on listening (as part of a counseling course), I figured I would write a simple informational text on the matter for those who desire to do the same.
Please note that conversational patterns are, for the most part, gendered. Research has shown that men tend to compete for air time, while women tend to take turns and share air time. I am a woman, and I am certain that my gender has informed this tutorial in some way, so please take what is relevant and helpful for you, and leave the rest behind.
Listening is an act of service
The first thing to understand about listening is that it serves both the listener and the speaker. Listening, at its best, is a genuine expression of interest, curiosity, and care. When we care about people, we want to hear their opinions, ideas, feelings, and experiences. Listening can be fun. It can be a relief after a long day (especially for those of us who find it very exhausting coming up with things to say aloud) to listen to a good friend. It can be a great joy. It can also be an honor when people share with us.
But listening is also a sacrificial act of service. Truly good listeners recognize that, through their act of listening, they are facilitating spaces for speakers to become more fulfilled and realized versions of themselves, and skillful listeners craft those spaces carefully and lovingly, without self-interest in mind. A listener must listen compassionately and openly, ready to trust the speaker, to fully engage and try out their ideas, to validate and affirm them. At times a listener might need to work hard to find a way to be interested in what is being said. A listener may need to practice some patience.
No matter how it goes, I find that listening goes best when the listener clearly understands the desires of the speaker.
The Three Types of Listening
If you are setting out to do the service of listening, your first task, after finding someone to listen to, is to determine what that person is most looking for from you. Is that person looking for someone to whom he can vent about his day? Is he looking for someone who will be entertained by a story that happened to him that he found funny? Is he wrestling with a problem that he is trying to solve? Is he struggling with a dilemma and seeking advice? Is he looking for a way to share and explore his own ideas? Is he feeling really excited about something new he learned and does he want to share that?
I have found there are three main types of listening: Listen to Nod, Listen to Push, and Listen to Ask. In most conversations there will be plenty of overlap and a constant, natural movement between the three, but this generalized schema for understanding the possible tasks of a listener will help you develop the skills to deal with all of them, separately or together.
As you determine what your speaker is looking for, make sure that whatever you give is genuine. Each of the main three types of listening can be rewarding, fun, and relationship-building, as long as you truly care and want to offer this service to the person. If you are faking it, both of you will regret the conversation shortly after it begins.
- Listen to Nod
Listening to nod is a type of listening in which you share in a person’s emotions, feelings, and recountings of what has happened to him or her, as if you are nodding along. If you are familiar with the “It’s not about the nail” video on Youtube, you may have an understanding of what a speaker is looking for in the Listening to Nod category. In this category, your primary task is to agree with what the speaker is saying. To express surprise, shock, awe, or joy when the speaker gives the punch line, or to express disgust, horror, sadness, pain or any other emotion the speaker is experiencing as the speaker explains whatever has caused that emotion. Your primary job is to agree– not just with your words, but with your heart. During this type of listening, you offer your own emotional space as a mirror and additional space for him or her to express what he is going through. This can be nice, because it doesn’t require you to problem solve or think very hard… you just get to sit back, enjoy the ride, and share life with someone. Sitting with someone attentively, making the right facial expressions, and giving vocalizations of assent are the key task of a listener here.
Some examples of this type of listening are when a speaker says, “I had a rough day today.” Or “the funniest thing happened to me today!” or “I just called because I need someone to vent to,” or “Oh my gosh have you seen that video clip?” In all of these cases, a speaker is introducing his or her desire to share emotions with another person. As the chosen listener, you should feel honored that you get to participate in the speaker’s life, and– if you have chosen your friends well– find yourself entertained, horrified, or rewarded with a sense of camaraderie– of doing life together and getting to share the things that happen to us with each other.
Please note that every person has a different threshold for how much attention they want in a one-on-one (or other type of) Listening to Nod conversation. Some people need ten seconds to vent, some people need an hour and a half. As you get to know your friends as speakers, you can cater to these particularities in their speaking habits. Definitely don’t force a speaker to continue speaking about something s/he is done talking about.
If you are unsure whether a speaker wants to continue or stop, the easiest way to check is to wait, silently, for about 2-3 full seconds after a speaker finishes talking. If the speaker still has something to say, the speaker will use this silence as an indication to continue. If the speaker is finished, his/her body language will alter and he/she may even say something like “Okay. I’m done now. How was your day?” You can also use these several seconds to process what was said and come up with a helpful response (i.e. a follow up question; see below). Just don’t be in a hurry.
Wait time: it’s the trick.
- Listen to Push
Listening to Push is the opposite end of the spectrum from Listening to Nod. In this case, a speaker is facing a true dilemma and is seeking help because he or she genuinely doesn’t know what to do and wants to be absolved of her own responsibility in the matter. In this case, the speaker is hoping to be led a certain direction by whatever wisdom or outside perspective you can offer. In the “It’s not about the nail” video, the listener interpreted the speaker’s desires as a need to a ‘Listen to Push,’ which is why he offered suggestions and fixes, and pointed to certain problems. This is a common mistake made in inter-gender conversations by men, who rarely Listen to Nod with each other, so when women ask Listening to Nod of them, they are confused, and instead resort to Listening to Push. Women, who are looking for emotional support and validation, suddenly find themselves defensive and pushed, and, as a result, they feel frustrated. Such miscommunication is why it is so essential to understand the speaker’s desires when you set out to listen.
In the case of Listening to Push, it is the listener’s job to first ask a series of questions to truly get a grasp of the situation and the speaker’s desires. Clarify as much as you need to until you fully understand what happened. The speaker will appreciate fully rehashing his or her problem, and the help you can give will improve exponentially once you have a full grasp from all your clarifying questions. Then, and only then, it is the listener’s job to offer leading questions, probing questions, suggestions, ideas, and relevant pieces of evidence and advice.
Cues for Listen to Push are when speakers say things like, “What do you think I should do?” or “I don’t understand what this means. What does this mean to you?” or “Can you walk me through what you did when this happened to you?” These are direct asks for help and advice.
Please note that some emotionally immature people will make an ask for Listen to Push and then, once they start receiving advice, will change their minds and revert to Listen to Nod. This happens because the prospect of solving the problem is too much of an emotional unknown, and it is easier to maintain the initial emotional state. In this case, you should return to Listen to Nod in order to be kind to the speaker.
- Listen to Ask
Perhaps my favorite type of listening is Listening to Ask. This type of listening is an act of service where the listener gets to be a part of shaping, forming, and supporting the realization of the speaker’s ideas. Through genuine curiosity and well-made follow-up questions, a listener creates a space for a speaker to expand upon, realize, and articulate his or her ideas on a matter. If you have ever seen a speaker really excited to talk about what he or she is talking about, there is probably a very skilled listener nearby, participating in Listening to Ask.
In Listening to Ask, a listener pays attention to what a speaker is really interested in and cares about, and begins to ask questions whose answers the listener is curious to hear and the speaker is excited to share more about. Some people who are very passionate about their career fields or about certain political ideas or a certain place they traveled to or a book they read can go on about these things forever if they are speaking to the right person. These conversations result from questions like, “Have you decided who you are voting for?” or “How did you get into that field?” or “Have you been following those protests? What do you think?” or “What did you think of that movie?”
And the listener, through this, learns something new, potentially developing a new interest or idea to check out. Listening to Ask is a great way to learn, to develop friendships with interesting people, and to support the intellectual stimulation and idea creation of your brilliant and interesting friends.
The Importance of Follow-Up Questions
I find that the biggest mistake made by amateur, unskilled listeners, is the inability to come up with successful follow-up questions in the pace of a conversation. This is absolutely crucial to being a good listener in all three types of listening, because it indicates (a) that you are interested, (b) what specifically you are more interested in, and (c) where the conversation should go. It is a huge service to the speaker, who is already bearing much of the burden of the conversation by actually coming up with words and tone and energy and ideas. Conversation requires multiple sides, and questions are the glue that holds everything together, the gas that keeps everything going.
We have all been with someone who likes us and cares about us and asks us “How was your day?” to which we respond, “Not the best, but I’m okay,” and then the person, instead of picking up on this, says simply, “Oh, I’m sorry.” The person has correctly interpreted that we are desiring Listen to Nod. But the person doesn’t actually get to the important listening part, because she doesn’t help you share! She has left you in silence still, because she hasn’t done the digging you needed her to do.
This is essential, especially for many women and members of other marginalized groups, who feel that expressing their emotions out loud is a burden upon others that only invalidates them as stable and mature conversational partners and idea makers. They fear launching into a story of their day because you might not emotionally meet them there, and you might criticize them for it or not fully believe them. That is part of society’s narrative of women especially. So some people will couch their desires to be heard in “but it’s okay” sentiments that give their listeners an easy opt-out. As a listener, you should be aware of your speaker’s fear of judgment and fear of being invalidated and work extra hard to mirror the speaker’s emotions. This may feel awkward at first, but it will become easier with practice. If emotions make you uncomfortable, the intellectual work of crafting perfect follow-up questions can keep you occupied, because this is exactly the space where good follow-up questions make all the difference.
A good follow-up question must meet the following requirements:
1. It must build on what the speaker just said. In the above scenario, the correct follow-up question is “Oh, what happened?”
2. It should dig further into a specific detail that you (the listener) want to genuinely know more about, preferably using details you already know from before. In the above scenario, our speaker, especially if she’s particularly wary, likely will respond vaguely to the first follow-up question: “Just… working with my partner Sally can be really hard.” To follow-up on this comment, the listener could ask directly “What did Sally do today?” That is fine, but an even better question, if the listener had already have heard a story about Sally before, is to offer the story to the speaker first. “Did she mess up the office files again?”
What this shows is that (a) you heard her last time she talked about Sally, and you were interested enough to remember it, and (b) you want her to tell her story. You have taken the burden off of her to jump into an emotional tale she’s afraid of being judged for. I like this method a lot when listening. And don’t worry if the story you suggest is totally off! Correcting you is a much easier task than entertaining you, so your speaker will feel at ease almost immediately in telling you the actual juicy drama of the day.
3. One follow-up question is never enough. You should ask enough follow-up questions to fully exhaust the subject, but not exhaust the speaker. Let him or her really talk out what he/she really wants to talk about. Keep asking until he/she is done. Ask what he/she is going to do about it. Ask if it’s ever happened before. Ask if the other workers down the hall had the same problem. If she is still interested in talking about it, and you’re still enjoying listening, then keep it going.
4. Grab the out (or plan it). When you feel the speaker has nearly exhausted the topic, you should listen for potential questions you can ask that will move the conversation in a new direction. If none present themselves as you are wrapping up the subject, you may wish to cast around internally for other topics you want to bring up. Be ready with an out for your speaker, if your speaker doesn’t provide you one already (your speaker may do this if he/she scores high on the fairness scale. See below*). This can keep the conversation going.
Last, but certainly not least, body language is very important in listening. If you are checking your phone, looking about the room, leaning away from a person, interrupting, or otherwise indicating that you have better things to do or are looking for an opportunity to leave, you are not being a good listener. It’s not just that you’re being rude– you are giving cues that the speaker isn’t worth your attention, and you are distracting the speaker from his or her primary task. The general rule of thumb is that a good listener should physically mirror the person he/she is talking to. If your speaker leans forward, you lean forward. If your speaker sits up, you sit up. If your speaker turns to face the room, you stand next to him, facing the room.
For the most part, your body will do this automatically. We are programmed to communicate our care and interest in people through body language and tone. We are programmed to mirror each other physically and emotionally. Mostly, in this day and age, you need to simply be aware of the draw of certain distractions and be able to resist the temptation to give into them.
*A Note on Fairness
Fairness is the awareness and willingness to take turns in the course of conversation. It is an official score on certain personality inventories (some marriage success research has been done using the fairness scale). If you have ever met a highly talkative person who is a particularly poor listener, you have met someone who scores low on the fairness scale. That person probably talked your ear off for an excessive amount of time, possibly bored you and ignored certain social cues from you, and still didn’t know how to fix the situation so she/he kept talking on, spending all your listening energy.
On the other hand, the people with whom you have conversations that seem to be equally balanced, a perfect tennis match of words and ideas, probably would earn very high scores on the fairness scale. They believe in taking turns. They believe if one of you shares about your day fully, then it’s the other person’s turn to share about his day fully. They are interested and interesting. These people will likely use up their airtime comfortably and then easily turn the conversation in your direction and serve you as a listener in return. Hopefully these conversations pass easily, automatically, with a natural flow you barely even notice. These conversations are a joy.
If you are a really excellent listener, please be aware that you may be guilted into spending more time listening to unfair people in social settings, simply because you will do it and because those people will eat up your listening skills in self-centered wonder. Please do not do that. Instead, you should send the unfair person this article, and go find someone better to have a conversation with.