How to Listen: A Simple Tutorial

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.

SabrinaZolkifi_June2014_people-talking-cartoon-shutterstock

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Body Language

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.

Advertisements

On the Vanishing of Women

photo (14)

I.

I inherited my mother’s body— the weight, the height, the thighs, the small breasts, the curly hair. The only thing I am missing is her chin and her cheekbones— a facial frame that is lost in my uncommonly round face. Though both of our bodies are powerful, her face is built to be regal. Mine is different: it is built for joy.

Since my first memories of her, my mother has been gorgeous— hips and butt and height and perfect wrists and a beautiful facial profile and the faint scent of Clinique perfume. I remember as a child cuddling up on her thighs and exploring her mysterious calves that were prickly from shaving. There were no value judgments in my eyes.

But she taught me those too in time. She wistfully wished for thinness aloud, cutting plates of delicious food in half before my very eyes and ‘saving some for later.’ She gave me stern looks when I ate big portions or snuck pre-dinner thin mints or went back for seconds. She celebrated my seventh grade body— all legs and no fat— and looked askance at my ninth grade body— when I grew hips, thighs, and weight.

I learned quickly to resent her opinions about my body, to rebel against them, to avoid her judgments and put up walls of defense. The truth was that I didn’t need her to tell me those things: I knew plenty well that I was no picture of beauty. I have always been tall and strange-looking: frizzy hair, wide reddened face, and an opinionated attitude un-couched in effeminate apologies. (For the record, she taught me that too. What a boon for my working life. What a disaster for my dating life.)

But it’s not her fault that she tried to change me. I was her last chance at the ever elusive but continually promised bodily beauty— and to her, I was throwing it away.

As I grew older I learned how to barter my mother’s lost desire for a thin body for my own uses— she would pay for healthy food and gym memberships when I couldn’t afford them or help me buy a new pair of running shoes when mine needed replacement. I have never much valued thinness, but I have come to value health in many ways, because she has given me both models of and access to it. Now that I am old enough to recognize this, I am grateful.

II.

This time of year always makes me a little sad. Though the dark days of winter don’t bother me much and I enjoy the idea of a fresh start with the new year, it seems that every year I witness a small, unnoticed national tragedy happen yet again: women’s recommitment to self-starvation.

Like a national headline story that ceases to bother people any more, this new years resolution is a given. We don’t even ask each other any more. Yes, again, we will diet. Yes, again we will try. Yes, we really shouldn’t eat that. Yes, I need to lose weight too— how’s it going?

At my most recent annual physical, my doctor told me that I needed to lose 16 pounds to be at a healthy BMI. I dutifully dragged out my scale and ordered a body fat percentage counter, but a small piece of me died inside. I do not want to participate in this, especially not at this time of year. I get that I am too big and should be at a healthier weight, but I loathe the idea of letting myself become another woman who slowly vanishes. When I see actresses and models, I cringe. They look skeletal, fragile, breakable. They are all small, and I simply have no interest in being small. I have too much to do where I need power. When I walk into a room, I want everyone to know I am there. To be stronger? I’d like that. To be faster? That too. But to become a whispy thing… I feel as if I would be choosing to lessen myself until I am light enough to be blown away, to be disregarded, to go unheard. And this is what I am supposed to pursue?

III.

I once read a blog post that pointed out that men’s health and fitness magazines used terms like “bulk up” and “beef up” to describe male fitness. The goal is always strength. As I remember my brother said for an entire summer of his college career, he “wanted to get huge.” But the language in women’s magazines is about being weaker, about eating less, about losing weight and becoming smaller. Theoretically, should they not be the same?

IV.

My grandmother was ‘a great beauty in her youth’, as my mom likes to say. I’ve only seen a few photos and heard some stories, but I know that she too was wide-hipped and curly-haired and loved to dance. But during that generation, wide hips and curly hair on buxom blondes made the picture of perfection. The 40s and 50s took to curves like the 90s took to box-like boy frames and buttless stick-legs.

I think the generational differences in beauty standards are worth mentioning. Hundreds of years ago, men wanted their women to be well-fed, from strong families, able to bear a slew of kids while managing a complex household. For such a thing, both size and strength were assets. In contrast, women who looked like waifs were treated as sickly, disabled creatures. It takes only a few glances at the paintings of Renoir and Cassatt to recognize a value judgment on size that differs from our own.

And honestly, though antiquated, this mindset makes much more sense to me. Obesity is not okay. Health and strength are clearly valid criteria for a life partner. But thinness? Your lover isn’t a balcony railing or a window; you’re not trying to see through her. And I’m just not sure what other uses of thinness there are.

You can tell me it’s sexier. But that just wasn’t always true; men’s tastes have changed, which means that men’s tastes are being driven by media and culture and what is around them. And in a year where the rise of Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande alongside a multi-million dollar laser hair removal industry demonstrates our society’s strange obsession with making women look like pre-adolescent girls, I can’t help but conclude that the pursuit of thinness is both arbitrary and mystifying.

V.

  To change myself for the sake of vanity and insecurity feels like a betrayal of the self and body I love and the values I care about. I love my brain and I love my hips. It’s true that underwear never fits nicely over my weird butt and that I have some odd pudginess in my tummy and calves and face that come and go with the seasons, but being thin is so boring. I don’t want to be boring. I don’t even really want to be thin. What I want— though I can’t speak for every girl who haunts a gym this time of year— is to be loved for who I am and to be pushed and challenged to be an even better me. With someone, not for someone. Honestly, I have been told too many times in my life that losing weight is what will make someone love me, I just don’t want to find out if that’s true.

VI.

I imagine women’s desire for weight loss to be a sort of perverted grading system, where we decide if we’re worth an F or a C or a B+ based on an ever-elusive body concept. As if we can be loved in pieces of our physical selves.Yeah, I think about 88% of you is hot and the other 12% I could do without. Somehow, that feels neither loving nor human.

Maybe that’s the issue with all this— it’s the pursuit of an inhuman ideal.

VII.

I once wrote a short story about a woman who vanished on the way down the aisle of her wedding because she had stopped eating enough. The story was narrated by her fiancé, left feeling wretched and lost at the altar. It was painful to grieve with him as he remembered her full weight sitting on his lap the day he proposed. It hurt, even though he was a fictional character.

Sometimes I imagine, if the real world was like my story, how many women would be flickering in and out of existence because of their pursuit of thinness?

VIII.

America has a complicated relationship with food. In many other countries, the dishes you eat are cultural, home-made, family style. American food culture is different: it’s political. Everything is big business: eating food, losing weight, gaining weight, losing hair, farming, groceries, sugar, corn, gyms, personal training, scales, surgery… I could go on.  Here, the dishes we eat range in content and taste, but what you can count on is the processing, the prevalence of chain restaurants, and the ubiquity of sugar and salt and fat in both addictive and commercially viable quantities. People who spend extended time in many other countries will be the first to tell you that people often lose weight while abroad. It’s not intentional; it’s by participating in a systemic shift of food culture and the release of food from commercial politics.

But for women in America, it’s even more complicated. Women here grow up learning that people of their gender find comfort for everything— periods, break-ups, special occasions— in chocolate and sweets. It’s in movies, in our friends, in our stories, in our magazines, in our mothers, in our recipe books. Then we reinforce the idea every month when our period comes. Then suburban franchises like Starbucks and Cheesecake factory, where the only snacks are sweets and the only plates are massive, become the center of our social and working lives.

Then, when girls are about 15 years old, we start to turn this on them. We start to tell them to stop eating all this stuff we’re putting in front of them. We tell them to stop eating those things we’ve told them would comfort them. We tell them to stop filling their bodies with things that make them feel good. We tell them that their beauty— which is their main worldly power— hinges on their ability to swim upstream against American female eating culture.

And it does.

IX.

This is the part where you argue with me and you tell me that I am making women feel okay about themselves when there is really something wrong and that I am trying to help them be in denial about their lives and their future dating prospects and that men are more visual than women and it’s true that you’d be a lot hotter if you lost 16 pounds and that Americans are fat and we need to do something about it and why don’t you just write about why it’s important to be healthy and how to lose weight? Or maybe you’d be in the other camp and start yes-ing this whole piece and commenting about how terrible body shaming is and how ridiculous the weight-loss industry is and go me, let’s love everybody’s bodies like those Dove commercials with all the perfectly proportioned beautifully complexioned people of all different races and sizes.

But I don’t want to be on any of these teams. I don’t want to care enough about this to do anything. I don’t care about the absurd American food and weight loss industry. I don’t care about this ridiculous conversation all women have with each other and with themselves while pretending not to have it. And though I know it’s hard to separate from its implications, I honestly don’t think I care about being thin.

I want to be healthy. I want to be active. I want to walk up mountains and bike across Europe and run half-marathons in Napa and play basketball with my friends. I want to swim to clear my mind and sleep to restore my body and eat food that nourishes me— and sometimes that comforts me.

I don’t want to lose anything. I want to gain— to grow. And I want to be loved.