Intent Blog

How to be a Good Listener for Improved Communication

How to be a good listener

Being a good listener is about how your attention operates when you are listening to someone. Being a good listener really is just as simple as giving the other person your full attention. This is not however always easy to achieve. lets start with the worst mistake you can make when it comes to listening.

Outcome focused attention

Most of us spend a lot of our time with this dispersed attention. We spend time with thoughts of the future, of the past and of the happenings in distant places. This is unfortunate because, as Etkso Schuitema says, you cannot see what is in front of you if your attention is occupied with what is around the corner. This is one of the things we get wrong when listening to others, we are simply not present in the moment with them. I am often surprised how much I missed, about what someone said (or even about things that happened in a moment), because I was lost in thought instead of attentive to the person or to the moment.

A similar, but much worst, mistake we make when it comes to listening is what I call outcome focus attention. Etsko Schuitema calls it predatory attention. Outcome focused is not a blank absence from the moment, it is the active imposition of my own thoughts, feelings, agendas, beliefs, assumptions, desires, etc. onto what the other person is saying. This is worse than simply being absent because, not only are you not hearing the other person out, you are also now actively imposing yourself on them.  Avoiding this mistake is not just about processing what the other person is saying, it is about processing what he saying without imposing your own perspective. Listening then is not just about being attentive, it is also about suspending your agenda.

Listening is aMoral SkillReceptive attention

I think there are two essential skills involved in being a good listener. The first is being attentive and the second is suspending your agenda. Of the two, suspending your agenda is the harder to achieve. This is understandable because non of us are a blank slate. We all have our own perspectives and ways of looking at things so it is natural to interpret what others are saying from that standpoint. It is possible however, at least momentarily, to put aside these things and choose to really see where the other person is coming from.

Etsko Schuitema describes the skill of suspending your agenda as the skill of cultivating receptive attention. Receptive attention is an openness. Receptive attention allows experience to come and fill it, without discrimination. When your attention is receptive you are truly able to empathise with the other and assimilate their way of looking at things. You expand your horizon because you let their perspective in. This does not mean that you have to give up your own convictions and accept the convictions of the other person. It just means you put your convictions aside for long enough to get their perspective as it is.

There are a number of practical exercises you can use to switch from outcome focused attention to receptive attention. Simple things like changing your posture and giving your full attention to your breath for 2 minutes can help you put aside your concerns and be present and receptive. Meditation is also a very helpful exercise in cultivating receptive attention. Often however, we can find our own ways to become present and receptive and making use of them before a meeting or conversation can have a dramatic effect.

Assad holds a Masters in Philosophy from the University of the Witwatersrand and is currently a PhD candidate. He is the editor of the Schuitema blog and is a regular facilitator of the company's Care and Growth and Mentoring for Mastery programs. He also has 5 years experience lecturing and tutoring Philosophy at Wits.