Do you believe you are a good listener and do others agree?
If you don’t have that reputation, it’s not your fault: your brain is designed to predict what other people are going to say next. You are often so busy listening to your brain’s plotting and planning that you can’t hear what the other person is saying.
A study conducted at Princeton University found that “speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication”. If that was so much Greek to you, let’s state it more simply: when your brain starts acting like your conversational companion’s brain, you actually communicate. You won’t be surprised to hear that the study found there is generally a lag between what you hear and what you understand, and this is where we get into trouble. In the midst of that lag, we start predicting and supposing and guessing. Too often, we are still caught up in our own reverie as our conversation partner continues talking. The good doctors at Princeton would say that our brain activities decouple at that point and that as a result comprehension starts to plummet. This is the scientist’s way of saying, “You’re not listening.”
The good news is that your brain works for you: rather than letting it just do what it’s programmed to do automatically, you can train it to do new tasks. The brain is the best pet you could ever hope for—it can be taught all kinds of tricks, and it loves to please its master. The trick to teaching your pet brain is concentration. Many folks find concentration to be taxing but that is because they approach it in the wrong way. While you can make yourself concentrate, sooner or later you will tire out and your brain will go back on autopilot. The result will be “neural decoupling”—that is, your brain will wander off on its own.
Concentration is more properly approached passively rather than actively. Don’t make yourself concentrate; allow yourself to concentrate. Just hear what is said, observe the nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language, absorb the tone and the pace of their speech. If you find you are distracted by other stimuli or by your own thoughts, be gentle with yourself. Just guide yourself back to hearing with no self-judgment. In fact, recognize that self-judgment itself is just another distracting thought. You will find with practice that these wanderings become less frequent.
When you first attempt this, you will notice that you respond less quickly in conversation. People may not be used to you being this contemplative, so give them the chance to get used to it. Your responses will be more in tune with them, and everybody likes “in tune” better than “out of tune”. In short, they will feel heard by you like they have never felt it before.
If you do this, something fascinating happens, according to the doctors at Princeton. They did fMRI brain scans of the participants in their study and found that people’s brain wave patterns started to align as people actually listened. Not only did the lag between hearing and understanding vanish but the listeners started to anticipate what the other person was about to say before they said it. This is not the same as your autopilot guesses; instead, what they found is your brain pattern actually starts to match that of your partner in real time. When that happens, a strong connection occurs, understanding deepens between you, and real communication takes place.
When you as the listener find yourself in the same state at the talker, you tend to move in tandem. People get a real charge out of being understood, so it is very much worth your effort to seek such an alignment. There is the practical benefit of receiving information as its imparter meant it to be received and additionally there is also an emotional connection that takes place. Even in mere business or transactional settings, there is value to such an emotional connection as it fosters trust and comfort. As a result, people believe in your sincerity and genuineness, which eases relations and lessens conflict.
Your brain may not be so good at listening but that doesn’t mean you can’t be. Let it know who the boss is, and earn the reputation of being a good listener.
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