A FEW DAYS AGO, I wrote an article on storytelling and its role in charisma. In it, I broke down the structure of a good story and argued for its role in not just charisma, but in human connection itself. To me, story telling was essential.
But there were some who disagreed.
It was decided by some that rather than being good advice, this was instead detrimental, as it led people to blather on and reel off stories about themselves, without paying attention to anything the other person was saying. And I mean, sure, that is pretty shitty advice – but it’s also something I never recommended. So I put it to the back of mind and moved on.
Or at least, I tried to.
I’ve written a lot about charisma in the past – how it works within basic conversation and flirting, and how it’s essential roots lie, paradoxically, within the willingness to be perceived as unlikeable, rather than the skill of being found charming.
However, despite covering all of these topics, I have never once addressed the importance of listening itself – not just why you should do it, but how the different types of listening occur and how they affect your relationships and happiness itself.
It’s time that changed.
THE FOUR TYPES OF LISTENING
Having worked in sales for most of my twenties, I’m no stranger to the concept of ‘teaching listening’. Stuffed into cramped board rooms and forced to consume hours of material (to be used solely for the purpose of manipulating others), the concept of different but all too commonly utilized forms of listening that appear in our day to day lives is something I’ve noticed for years.
In my own behavior, and in the behavior of others, I’ve often spotted varying and specific types of listening, that radically differ in the way we interact with others and the quality of relationships in our lives.
What I slowly came to realize is that these different types of listening all orbit around one single decision, a simple decision, that, as I will explain, has far flung consequences in our ability to connect with others, and have memorable interactions.
AWAY IN FUCKING LA LA LAND
Tell me if you recognize this:
- You are in a conversation with someone, but rather than listening to them, you are in fact listening deeply to whatever idea, thought or daydream that is currently engaging your brain. So intensely are you listening to this neural activity, that you cannot even hear what the person is saying.
- In order to keep the actual conversation going in real life (usually for no other reason than basic social decorum), you adopt the appearance and mannerisms of someone who is engaged, listening and interested. You nod, you lean forward, you occasionally perform an emotive facial expression, often followed by a gasped “really?”. Other verbal punctuations include, “Uh huh”, “sure” and a flurry of “Yeah, yeah”.
This is the appearance of listening; the simulation of it. In fact, the name I almost gave this was Simulated Listening.
As you can imagine, this simulation can only last so long before it’s exposed, typically when the other party in the conversation asks your opinion on something and you’re left frozen wondering what the fuck you were just asked.
This is the most frequent form of listening that you get with heavily introverted people, people who have ADHD, people who are exhausted, and also, me.
The chief negative of this problem is that it leaves you trapped within your head in conversation. Instead of consciously directing your focus at the person you’re speaking to (more on that later), you’ve decided to stay within your own head, listening to your own thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in the company of others, it drains you of your personality, your engagement, and prevents you from having real connection with others.
Do yourself a favor – save the deep thinking for when you’re alone.
TWIN TRACK LISTENING
You might not have heard of this but it is an epidemic that has consumed the entire world.
You know when you’re talking to someone, and maybe the TV’s on, their mobile phone is flashing up, someone’s having in argument in the restaurant or they’re also doing some kind of work, and the entire time they’re speaking to you but deep down you know they’re only half tuned into to your conversation, and simply offering what is necessary in order for it to continue whilst they tune it to what it is they actually want to concentrate on. Usually important things like Facebook.
This kind of listening is the one that leaves you most dissatisfied, and instead of having a true exchanged of ideas and feeling, all you’re left with is being managed.
The easiest way to spot this kind of listening in yourself is when you’re wanting to concentrate on something else, but instead of telling the other person this outright, you choose (for the reason of basic decorum) that instead, you’ll focus on both to placate the other person whilst keeping yourself happy.
You think you’re being nice but you’re actually just selfish.
If you’re an introverted person it’s unlikely you’ll do this, as with your head blasting out its own thoughts you’ll have a hard enough time concentrating on a what anyone else is saying as it is – but if you aren’t, I’d almost guarantee you do this. In our age of smart phones, WhatsApp and Instagram, there is simply too much instant access stimulation to divide our attention – an attention that is crucial to understanding others and emotionally engaging with them (I will get to this later).
And that divided attention might make for short term enjoyment, but in the long run, your relationships will suffer.
Which one do you think is actually worth focusing on?
I always considered it ironic that in sales training we were often instructed to ‘fake empathy’ with people. That is, when they had a genuine concern or grievance, we were tasked with listening to them in order to spot it, pretend to empathize with it, and then connect it to what we were trying to sell them.
Instead of listening to them for mutual enjoyment and mutual connection, we were listening to them in order to get something – in this case, their money.
But this kind of listening isn’t limited to sales people. It’s something everyone does.
The insecure guy desperately hangs on every word in order to say something that will make them like him; the guy trying to learn game frantically picks through her conversation to spot a moment to fake connection with her; the ambitious employee feigning interest to the boss in order to win approval, and maybe a promotion.
Just as everyone has what they want, everyone falls into traps of using listening in order to get what they want.
The downfall of this is that whilst it can be beneficial in terms of potentially achieving things you may desire, it almost always comes at the cost of true connection with others. Not only is this something that is felt by the person you are interacting with, but it also comes at the cost of your own real connection.
When we leverage conversation with others in order to get want, we cost ourselves the unique sparks of connection and spontaneity that true, organic conversations have. As we go into an interaction knowing our outcome, in either achieving it or not, we inevitably end up learning very little about the other person, and as a result ourselves, in the process.
This form of predatory listening is the most toxic as it is the easiest to consciously slip into. Where twin track listening and la la land have an element of the unconscious to them; predatory listening is a conscious decision to go forgo your own emotions and empathy in the place of your own desires.
At best, it gives you what you want, whilst leaving you with shallow, empty relationships. At worst, it gives you nothing at all.
Are either something you really want?
REAL LISTENING / DEEP LISTENING
We’ve talked about getting stuck in your own head, we’ve talked about dividing our focus between our conversation and something else, and we’ve talked about the predatory, psychopathic listening – and each of them has something in common.
They each involve focus.
In the truest, most real conversation you will have, you will be more focused on the other person than anything else. Not what you want, not what’s around you, not what’s in your head. The other person. Because it is within this focus, that you can truly listen and hear what the other person is saying, what the other person is feeling and who the other person is, and as a result connect on a deep and meaningful level.
This focus is subdivided as follows:
Listening – through focused attention:
- What is being said?
- What isn’t being said?
Feeling – through empathy:
- What is this person feeling?
- What does their tone/body language suggest?
The reason we focus on these is twofold:
- We will easily detect if someone is not listening to us, for any of the reasons listed earlier.
- If they are genuine, we will very easily connect with who they are and how they feel.*
When we listen to what the person is saying, we hear what it is they are trying are trying to say. When we listen to what they aren’t saying, we hear what it is that they are avoiding saying, or perhaps unaware they are trying to say. When we empathize with what they’re feeling, we begin to understand how they feel right now. When we listen to their tone and pay attention to their body language, we begin to see what feeling they might be hiding.
When we listen to all four, they all link together into a complete picture of the person we’re talking to. When we have a complete picture of who we’re talking to, we can share a picture of ourselves, and through this sharing, this conversation, we slowly uncover different elements of ourselves that we might not have been aware of (both them and us) and the sparks of connection and charisma come to life.
The logic for this is simple. When we feel what someone else feels, they feel safe. When we hear what someone else is saying, they feel heard. When we can see, and empathize with what they aren’t saying, they feel accepted and understood.
And all of this makes them feel better. It makes you feel better.
Isn’t that what charisma’s all about?
HOW TO START LISTENING WELL
One of the backward ways people look at conversation is they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what they want to say, and what they want to get across, rather than investing focus on the other person in the conversation. And if they aren’t doing that, then they’re usually lost focusing on something else; tuned out, passively taking in the conversation they’re involved in.
This is present in every type of listening except for Real Listening.
When we’re in our own head, our focus is on ourselves. What am I thinking? How do I avoid getting found out? What do I need to say?
When we’re splitting our attention, our focus is on ourselves. How do I keep this person entertained whilst I look at what I want? How do I avoid getting found out?
When we’re trying to get what we want, our focus is on ourselves. How do I use what they’re saying to my advantage? How do I mask my intentions? How does what they’re saying connect to what I want?
When the focus is on ourselves, not only does our listening suffer, but as a result, so too does our charisma, our connection, and ultimately, our happiness.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Just as our ability to listen is destroyed by focusing our attention on ourselves, it is just easily bolstered by focusing it on them.
That’s the magic pill of listening.
You choose to not listen to your thoughts. You choose to not listen to distractions. You choose to stop focusing on what you want. You look them in the eye. You turn your body towards them. You give them your focus, your attention and you listen.
That’s all there is to it.
There’s no secret, there’s no art, and there’s no reason why you’ve been held back from doing this already. It’s just a choice.
Stay in our own head, or find out whats in someone else’s.
Which one sounds more interesting to you?
*Unless we just don’t like each other.
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