Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.
— Lao Tzu
Most conversations in life remind me of a joke in academic circles. A junior professor meets a senior professor. For an hour, the senior professor drones on about his remarkable achievements—particularly his latest, groundbreaking, field-defining book—while the junior scholar listens like his tenure depends on it (because it does).
The senior scholar eventually comes out of his self-centered trance and says: “But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do YOU think of my latest book?”
Empathy is in short supply. We don’t like to admit it, but most of us are like the senior professor in this conversation. When we speak with other people, we do so with an agenda: To show them that we’re smart or funny. To gain points. To persuade them that our perspective is the right perspective and that our answer is the right answer.
We hijack each point and hurry to relate it back to us (That reminds ME of a time when I . . .). We nod along, pretending to listen, while thinking “I’ve heard this one before.” We assume we understand the other person and have the perfect panacea to their problem (I know just the thing. . . ). We have an answer ready before we fully know what the other person is saying.
When was the last time you listened? I mean, really listened. With no agenda to persuade. No desire to give advice. No thinking of a witty retort while tuning out the conversation.
Listening is more than just letting words hit your eardrums. It requires shutting down your mental chatter, setting aside your ego, and engaging in a conversation for the sole purpose of seeing someone else’s truth.
Listening is an increasingly rare skill. Public speaking is taught in schools and high-priced workshops, but there are no courses on public listening. What’s more, we’ve become so accustomed to receiving information in the form of dramatic breaking news and 100-decibel sirens of social media notifications that conversations that exceed witty 140-character sound bites tend to slip under our radar.
I’m convinced this is partially a reflection of how we read online: We skim articles—often jumping to conclusions based solely on clickbait headlines—and then carry that conditioning over to conversations. The acronym TL;DR (meaning Too Long; Didn’t Read) becomes TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen).
The death of listening comes with a hefty price tag. When we don’t listen, we don’t retain what we hear. Our friends, partners, and co-workers don’t feel appreciated or understood. We miss opportunities to build trust and empathy. We get blindsided when Britain exits the European Union or a loud-mouthed demagogue is elected to public office. On a more selfish note, our own perspective suffers. The persuasiveness of our arguments plummet if we don’t understand the other side.
Here’s the thing: If someone disagrees with you, it’s not because they’re wrong, and you’re right. It’s because they believe something that you don’t believe. They have a different perspective that you’re missing.
Claiming pretense of knowledge, we put on our blinders, close our ears, and shut off incoming educational signals from outside sources. We march on pretending to know what we think we know, oblivious to glaring facts that contradict our ironclad beliefs. As Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it, “it is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows.”
This doesn’t mean you sit through lunch with a friend without saying a word. You can, and should, acknowledge and paraphrase to make sure you understand. Ask genuine follow-up questions, while resisting the tendency to couch arguments as questions (Have you considered the possibility that you might be completely wrong?). Ask if you articulated their argument correctly. When you get distracted (which you will), come back and listen more closely. Ask questions that move past platitudes and dig deeper than the weather: What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on? How does that work? What’s been the highlight of your day?
You’ll learn something new. You’ll stand out. Unlike the rest of the masses lost in their own mental chatter or the soft glow of their mobile devices, you’ll be among the few who can listen.
Thank you for listening.