The Importance of Listening

If you had to choose between being a good talker or a good listener, which would you rather be?

The gift of gab is the most commonly associated trait with achieving success in life. Without the ability to talk and convince people with your ideas, you’ll never get anywhere in your career, and the same goes for your social and even romantic life as well.

So where does listening come in?

The art of being a good listener is a subtle one. Anyone can hear what the other party is saying, but to listen is a whole new ball game. Fail to listen and you fail to empathize with others. Master the art of listening and you will open up countless new worlds – each world being the respective viewpoint of whoever you’re listening to.

Listening is especially important in intimate relationships, whether they be close friends and family, or a romantic partner. The most critical time to have good listening skills is when the other party is pouring out their problems to you. Our instinct is to want to help them as much as we can, and most often this comes in the form of saying something comforting, or suggesting possible solutions to the problem. But actually, the real solution is also the simplest: You just have to listen.

Really? No need to say the right thing at the right time? No need for soft words of comfort?

That’s right.

See it this way: If you don’t listen properly, you won’t understand their problem. If you don’t understand their problem, how would you ever know what’s the right thing to say in order to make them feel better?

Regardless of their self-confidence, most people do have an innate sense of self-worth. It is this sense of self-worth that leads them to feel wronged in some way when they confront problems in life. It is also this sense of self-worth that helps to explain just why listening is the best approach to take, every time. Let me substantiate this with a thought exercise below.

Think back to the last time you shared a problem with someone. Why did you decide to share that problem with that someone?

Chances are, you weren’t looking for a solution. I’m willing to bet you weren’t looking for advice either. What you really wanted, was what we commonly term as “a listening ear”. In other words, someone to let us pour out our grievances to.

You probably know of the gender stereotype that has men being problem-solvers and women being better listeners. But have you ever wondered just why are women better listeners? Are their brains more attuned to pick up the nonverbal cues exhibited by the other party? Or are their ears just better evolved for such a function?

No. The commonly-accepted reason why women are better at listening is because women intuitively know what we covered earlier: People share their problems in order to ‘get it off their chest’ and ‘out of their system’.

This is all well and good, but the actual truth goes a bit deeper than that. Remember our sense of self-worth that I mentioned earlier? When we are aggrieved by a problem, what we really want in sharing the problem with others isn’t a solution. What we really want is confirmation from other parties that our problem is significant and valid. We want the listening party to feel the same sense of outrage that we feel at having our pride hurt. We want to know that we aren’t just making a big fuss over nothing.

So, with this in mind, let’s take on the classic “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” scenario. The woman is having problems at work, and comes home to complain about it to her husband. The husband, keeping in line with his stereotypical male problem-solving ways, immediately launches into a detailed analysis of the problem faced by his wife, and comes up with an elegant solution that is guaranteed by logic to solve this problem as effectively and efficiently as possible. And of course, instead of being happy, she becomes even more upset.

Armed with the truth about listening, we now know exactly why she becomes more upset. If you complain about a problem and someone comes along and offers a solution that he thought of on the spot, doesn’t that mean that the problem you faced wasn’t really that big after all? And if it wasn’t really that big of an issue, why were you so affected that you felt the need to complain about it? In other words, the very act of coming up with solutions can be taken as belittling or trivializing the problem. Then, the party who shared the problem will feel foolish and ashamed because of two things:

1) Being unable to come up with the solution to what now seems like a trivial issue, and

2) Getting so affected by said trivial issue.

It is this that makes the sharing party react negatively – because their sense of self-worth has not been acknowledged or validated. In fact, it has been further trivialized and unsupported. This is why the sharing party often feels a strong sense of betrayal and angst.

So, the next time you find yourself playing Aunt Agony to your loved ones, hold back on the solutions and analysis. Tell them what they want to hear first: That their problem is important and valid, and that they have every right to feel hurt or wronged. Only after their pride has been made whole again will they be more receptive to whatever suggestions you have in mind. Good luck on your way to becoming a better listener!

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