Becoming a Better Listener – And Talker
When was the last time you had a thoroughly satisfying conversation? A conversation where you felt really in sync with the other person—where you thought they really got you. And maybe they even told you they felt the same.
Most of us have had at least a few of these conversations, and we know how wonderful they feel. Most of us have also had some really difficult conversations. Maybe you tried to share your thoughts and feelings, but the other person didn’t react the way you hoped. Maybe they didn’t understand you, no matter how you tried to express yourself. Maybe the conversation unexpectedly morphed into a conflict.
And maybe you walked away wondering ‘what happened?’
The difference between a smooth, enjoyable conversation and a difficult, unsatisfying one can often feel random. Figuring out what makes the difference between the two has been a focus of our work for the past thirty-five years, and of our new book, Let’s Talk: An Essential Guide to Skillful Communication.
In the book, we explore several practices that can help you communicate more skillfully. Here, we’ll focus on one of them – balancing talking and listening – and show how mindfulness plays an integral role.
Communicating skillfully relies on metacognition, the ability to be aware of your thinking processes. Being aware of your own mind both before and during a conversation enables you to spot unhelpful communication habits, to recognize factors that may be influencing your communication, to assess which communication habits serve you and your relationships, and to make adjustments right in the middle of an interaction.
Metacognition includes two key components. The first is mindfulness: noticing and tracking your thoughts; observing the content of your thoughts in a relatively neutral way. The second is assessing the validity and usefulness of your thoughts using critical thinking.
First, just as in meditation, observing your thoughts mindfully requires some detachment, as if you were stepping out of your thoughts and watching them. You still have those thoughts, but you’re not completely swept up in them. If you feel a response—pleasant or unpleasant, welcome or unwelcome—to your thoughts, you notice those responses too. And if you find yourself judging your thoughts, you can note those reactions as well. Witnessing your thoughts and responses from a neutral, almost third-party perspective reduces the odds of becoming entangled in them.
Second, metacognition involves critically engaging with the content of your thoughts, and assessing how accurate and useful your thoughts are, if shifting them would be helpful, and what the optimal shifts in thinking might be.
Let’s take a look at how this works in one communication skill in particular: balancing talking and listening.
No matter what medium you’re using to communicate, all exchanges have two sides: talking and listening. And skillful communication requires fluency in both. Without listening, not much of an exchange can happen. You won’t have a conversation—just parallel monologues. If you talk without listening, you won’t know how the other person is reacting to your message. On the other hand, if you mostly listen in conversations, others won’t know what you think, feel, and want.
Knowing when to talk and when to listen can often make the difference between a constructive discussion and a troubled one. So discerning which is suitable for a given situation is an essential communication skill. Here are three examples.
First, what you want to achieve in a conversation is key to deciding how much you should talk or listen. At any point in a conversation, instead of automatically talking or listening, you can use your metacognition to observe what’s going on and to ask yourself, “What am I trying to accomplish right now?”
Then you can decide whether to talk or to listen. Talking is appropriate if you want to give information,, or clarify your feelings, or solve a problem or persuade someone. Listening is appropriate when you want to take in information, understand someone, build rapport, or help someone calm down or feel supported. When you consider whether to talk or to listen in a given moment, you can profoundly affect the outcome of your conversation.
To take a second example, it’s often difficult to listen attentively when you’re having a strong emotional reaction. Unsettling emotions such as frustration, fear, anger, embarrassment, disgust, sadness, and defensiveness are among the numerous reactions that can interfere with your listening ability. So, skillful listening includes noticing when emotions are coloring your perceptions, and assessing how well you can listen when you’re feeling emotionally reactive.
A third example is engaging in “flooding”—talking in pages rather than in paragraphs and not giving the other person a chance to respond. This may cause your listener to drift off, missing crucial parts of your message, or to feel alienated, as if you’re not interested in their responses to what you are saying. So skillful speaking includes remembering to limit how much you say at once, and to periodically pause and notice the other person’s verbal and nonverbal reactions to what you’re saying.
These are, of course, just a few examples, and change takes time and practice. But with metacognition as your ally, conversations you once found difficult can become easier—and even more enjoyable. Over time, you’ll avoid making inaccurate assumptions and saying things that can lead others to accuse you of ignoring or bruising their feelings. You might find yourself having fewer problematic conversations with your family, friends, coworkers, and others.
It might seem like skillful communication is something inherent in some of us and not in others. But just like any other skill, it can be learned. And what better inspiration than feeling greater harmony with the people in your life?
Dan Clurman and Mudita Nisker are the authors of the new book Let’s Talk: An Essential Guide to Skillful Communication. Since the 1980s, they have led communication training for NASA, Wells Fargo Bank, United Way, and many other organizations. Dan Clurman is an adjunct associate professor in the School of Business at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Mudita Nisker is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Oakland who has led communication training workshops in California and nationally since 1980.