• Matt Boyce

Listen to understand, not to reply.

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply. 

― Stephen R. Covey [Author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.]

There are numerous ways we send and receive messages to each other; we text, we Snapchat, we post stories, we blog, we vlog, we share photos, we comment, we tweet and retweet, we click like and love, we post gifs and memes, we update our status and tell Facebook what’s on our mind, but are all these messages really communicating anymore? 

Having a stranger begin following us on Instagram or request to connect with us on LinkedIn have become symbols of social influence, yet in real social situations, the idea of engaging a stranger in a conversation has many of us shying away. 

Real conversations offer a meeting of minds in a mutual search for meaning. They create a connection between people, not just a chance to be heard and understood, but to listen and understand in return. When people converse, a change of opinion is always possible, and it’s the best remedy for the sense of alienation and disconnection that’s the underlying cause of rising cases of mental illness. 

So how do we get back to having real conversations?

While meeting people face-to-face isn’t always possible, put away the emails and text messages for a real phone call or video chat. Yes, this means we won’t be able to edit and control our responses quite as much, making us feel vulnerable, but it offers the same lowered defences for the person you are conversing with too. It also shows a reciprocal respect for the time and attention of everyone in the conversation.

To really be able to listen and comprehend the views and feelings of the people you are conversing with, they need your full attention. Turn off the TV, shut down your devices, and turn off your notifications. Turn off your ego a little too while you’re at it. Don’t make the whole conversation about you, take a true interest in the person you’re talking to, and be open to their opinions and experiences, no matter how much they may differ from your own.    

Ask questions. Start small, the weather and weekend plans, but then work deeper, always asking open-ended questions and listening to their answers for ideas and topics you can build and carry on with. Questions that ask who, what, where or when are great openings, but remember to follow up with the ‘why’ as well.  Whereas questions that ask ‘have you…’ or ‘do you…’ should be used sparingly as they invite single-word answers, although even these can, of course, be followed-up with ‘why’ questions as well. 

The final step is attitude and authenticity. Don’t start off by complaining about something, instead focus on something you can both be grateful for (like the weather, the food, a recent happy event, etc.) — or at least something you can both laugh at. Observe the mood and attitude of the other person and respond in kind, for example, if the other person is talking about something that makes them angry, don’t laugh in response. But don’t think you have to imitate the other person completely. Don’t be afraid to show some of your quirks if you both get swept away by your passionate interest in a topic. Being yourself is an essential part of creating genuine connections. 

By opening ourselves up to real conversations, and not just one-way expressions of information, we open ourselves up to new ideas and opinions – even ones that we disagree with – we get a deeper understanding of topics and as well as the people in our lives, that we might otherwise take for granted. Whether you converse with your friends, colleagues, family members or complete strangers, this process helps you put things in perspective, build your resilience, and create stronger human connections.

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