How well do you listen?
An odd question to put on a website about dating. But I am going to argue that listening is THE best way to build an emotional connection with someone.
I was at a dinner for around 30 people and I was sat next to a woman who I’d just met. Over the space of about an hour we talked together about life, work, and the past.
I didn’t do or say anything remarkable.
I didn’t use any pickup lines or techniques.
I just listened carefully and was curious about her.
She did the same to me.
After the meal the whole group moved on to a bar for more drinks. The woman I had been talking to came up to me and said she felt a strong connection to me. I felt it too.
This wasn’t a lustful, passionate connection.
It’s foundations weren’t physical attraction (although no doubt that helped). This was a knowing, caring connection, one which no doubt could have transformed into a relationship should either of us have wanted.
How could this have happened after such a short amount of time spent together?
Providing the space
It wasn’t until I sat down and really thought about this incident, a few years later, that I began to understand.
We feel a strong connection to people who give us their undivided, non-judgemental attention whilst they speak uninterrupted about matters close to their heart.
It is so rare nowadays with busy schedules, smart phones, and an increasingly difficult to manage work life balance to be given space to talk and be heard.
Sure, we talk with friends. But there is generally an agenda at play. They want to offer advice. They want to make themselves look good. They want to help by sharing their experience. They want to interrupt with a “Me too!”. They eagerly wait their turn to speak, thus reducing the quality of their attention.
So when someone takes the time to REALLY LISTEN to us, we blossom.
You’d think that by merely listening, the other person would think of you as boring and dull.
In reality, the opposite is true. The delight the person feels at being allowed to freely express their thoughts, knowing they are not going to be interrupted or judged is liberating, and results in them feeling POSITIVE emotions.
You being the one they are talking to are therefore linked to these positive emotions through association.
How to listen well
Listening attentively is challenging, especially if you are used to having superficial conversations, or haven’t practiced.
Try it once and you’ll notice even a small improvement in your listening skills has a dramatic impact on your person you are talking with.
Here are some golden rules to follow.
1. Laser focus
Give your undivided attention to the person you are with.
They should feel the two of you are enveloped in your own personal bubble. Be present, bringing your attention back to the words she is saying whenever you find yourself drifting off.
If you have difficulty staying present, practise sitting somewhere in silence with your eyes closed for 5 minutes everyday listening to all the sounds you can hear. Concentrate hard on keeping your attention on just the sounds, resisting the temptation to jump on to any thoughts which enter your mind.
No matter what is going on behind her, resist the temptation to look over her shoulder. Keep your eyes on her.
When looking someone in the eye, ensure your eyes are ‘soft’, not piercing and hard. Soften your eyes by briefly thinking about a positive memory and noticing how your eyes change in the mirror. Practise holding this type of eye contact.
2. No interrupting
By interrupting you fall back into her pool of ‘normal people who never listen to me’.
By not interrupting you allow the person time to think, to come up with their own solutions to problems, to describe the scene they are picturing in rich detail, to dive deeply into a memory and re-live it in high definition, to make their point in its entirety.
3. Allow silence
Even when you believe she has finished talking, look at her face closely to determine if this is really the case.
Often we stop speaking in order to think, collect, and organise our thoughts. This is a beautiful process, and by being present and looking at her facial expressions you can see it happening.
Many people will look off to the side and down.
When this happens, your entire body will scream at you to jump in, to say something. It feels uncomfortable sitting in silence when you are not used to it.
Wait until the person looks back at you at it is clear they have finished before you start talking.
The person will thank you for allowing them the space to think.
4. No judgement
Avoid judging someone for what they say. Let them speak freely. If they sense you dislike what they are saying they will shut down, rather than open up.
Learn to accept others have different views of the world, based on their upbringing and life experience. Acknowledge the beauty in your differences. Empathise with their situation and be curious about how they came to see things the way they do.
I’m not saying being a pushover. I’m saying when you want to build a strong connection with someone hold back your own opinions and thoughts. They may ask you for them in the future, at which point you can politely offer them.
5. Summarise and reflect
When the person does come to an end, it’s time for you to demonstrate you heard and were listening, despite your silence. Simple phrases such as the ones below don’t really cut it, because they aren’t specific to what has been said.
- I understand
- I hear you
- That is amazing
- Thank you for sharing that
To really demonstrate you were listening, you should reflect back, by either summarising parts of what they said, or comment on what stood out for you.
Imagine your date was talking about a recent holiday to Spain. You had also recently been to Spain, but observing the ‘No interrupting’ rule you pushed aside that thought when it came up and didn’t mention it, allowing her to continue.
Rather than jumping in now and saying “I’ve been to Spain too!”, which doesn’t prove you’ve listening to anything but the first sentence she uttered, you might ask her to tell you more about an area of the trip she particularly enjoyed:
- Tell me more about when you went swimming in the sea. I could see your face light up when you mentioned that.
By focusing your attention on her you were able to easily pick up on her body language, and the parts of the memory that generated real emotion in her, and are therefore able to reflect that back. She now knows not only were you listening to her narrative, but you were DEEPLY listening to her (including ‘listening’ to her body language).
Another way to reflect would be to summarise:
- So you had a wonderful time in Spain, and loved the beach, but weren’t so keen on the food, especially in the restaurant next to your apartment.
Often summarising has the effect of causing the story to re-ignite. A summary such as this may lead someone to start explaining why they didn’t like the food, or to describe how well located the apartment was.
Notice how the reflecting keeps the focus on her. Do not make this about you.
When and where to listen
Should you listen to someone this way all the time? No.
In a first date situation, listening for the entirety of the date might build a strong emotional connection (although the first ten minutes tend to be nerve-wracking, so the person is unlikely to open up at that stage). But it probably won’t build an attraction.
Listening demonstrates your kind, catering side, but it does not demonstrate your Love traits (confidence, assertiveness, humour, purpose, flirting). Therefore, a good first date should interweave periods of active listening between more light-hearted and flirty periods (hence why The Heartbeat Method works so well).
In the workplace
The workplace is an excellent place to practise active listening. Use the skills above in meeting and to build relationships with colleagues. You’ll be seen as a better employee/boss/manager, people will trust you more and you’ll get more out of them, including ideas and solutions you wouldn’t normally have thought of.
For more on this topic, read the book ‘Time to Think’ by Nancy Kline.
When you wouldn’t do active listening is when you are at an office party, or after work drinks where the chat is more light-hearted and happening in groups.
Active listening one on one with a friend works really well, especially if they come to you with a problem they need help with, or simply want to share a frustration or win of the day.
In a group of friends, active listening is less useful, as the conversation tempo is higher, and meaningful topics are less likely to be touched on.
Listening is an art form. We are listened to so rarely that when we meet someone who does, we feel we have been heard, that we matter, and that someone cares about us and finds us interesting. And we associate those positive feelings with the person who listened to us.
Active listening is a skill you can use on dates, with friends, and to build your career.
Practise it today with the next person you talk to, and then use Feedforward to improve.