How to Listen Well and the Massive Difference It Can Make

Listening is one of the most basic skills required in human communication. Then isn’t it strange that there is no formal training on how to listen in our school and professional system? The lack of emphasis on listening could be because we believe that listening comes naturally to us as human beings. But from what I have learned in life, listening is not a natural skill and it takes conscious effort to listen well. Below are my biggest learnings on how to listen well :-

1. Why Do We Listen?

 
The first, and the most obvious, question to ask when we are listening is “Why?” Are we listening because then we get our chance to speak up? Are we listening because we have an agenda in the conversation and are thinking about how can we achieve that? Or are we listening because we just want to be polite, and otherwise we couldn’t care less about what the other person is saying? More often than not, we listen because of one of the above reasons. And it is not because we are selfish or deliberately trying to be rude, but because this is our normal way of operating in most conversations in life. Speaking up and making others agree to what we have to say gives immense pleasure to all of us, and in most conversations we unconsciously try to achieve that.
I claim that the only objective of listening, whether it is your spouse, friend or a business colleague at the other end, is to get what the other person is communicating. Not what the other person is ‘saying’ but what he is ‘communicating‘. And this requires conscious effort and continuous training in the act of listening because it is very natural to fall back into the default mode of listening.

2. What Do You Listen For?

 
Listening effectively is much more than hearing the sound and words coming out of the other person’s mouth. True listening happens when you ‘get’ the other person’s world – i.e., when you empathically see and feel about the situation just as the other person does. It is about getting the emotions – of joy, anger, frustration, resentment, etc – which are often hidden beneath the words actually being said.
Can you feel the other person’s pain, fear, excitement or happiness? True listening is about standing in the other person’s shoes and seeing the world from his point of view, and it takes a lot of effort to do this well. It is as much about hearing what is not being said as it is about what is being said. True listening requires patience to wait it out and the courage to go beyond our personal prejudices and see something from the other’s point of view.
 listening-quote

3. How Do You Listen?

So the next question is – how do you do that? Based on my experience, here are some guidelines which can help anyone to listen well :-
  1. Shut Up. Don’t interrupt the other person. Ever. Remember, you are supposed to be listening.
  2. Be attentive, alert and interested. Remove any distractions like mobile phones from the scene. Let the other person know that he has your full attention through nonverbal behaviour.
  3. Use filler words like “uhh”, “hmm” and body language to acknowledge what he is saying. Invite and encourage the other person to say more by saying “tell me more about it”, or “I am listening”.
  4. Be ok with silence. This often gives the other person time to gather his thoughts and speak up again.
  5. Listen for the emotions behind what is being said and sincerely attempt to step in the other person’s shoes and feel the same emotions yourself.
  6. Hold any judgement or advice if it comes up in your head. Do not try to comfort the speaker by saying words like “It is not that bad” or “Give it some time”. Don’t get angry or respond in any way. Just listen. And feel.

4. Who Decides if You “Got it” or Not?

The above guidelines are not a guaranteed way to listen to someone, and don’t assume you have listened well because you think so. The speaker is the only person who get to decide whether you “got” it or not. After the speaker has finished saying whatever he had to say, sum up whatever was said and how he feels. You don’t have to agree or disagree with the speaker at this point, you only need to paraphrase what you have understood and ask the speaker for validation. When the speaker says that you “got” it, make sure he is not just saying that to be nice or to avoid an uncomfortable environment. Only then can you be sure that you have listened to what was communicated. If the speaker says that you didn’t get it, ask him to explain more and repeat the process.

5. Listening Creates our Perceived Reality

When we listen to someone, we create our own perceived reality. This perception is unique to each person, and if 10 people were to listen to the same thing, you would agree that it is possible that they can create their own interpretations and perceive the reality in 10 different ways. How we listen is determined by a certain set of filters like our culture, habits, values, beliefs, intentions and expectations. Most often we unconsciously pay attention to certain things and omit certain others from our listening based on these filters. It is these filters, and the reality they create for us that help us make our each and every decision in life.
Realise that each one of us have our own set of listening filters which creates our own reality which is neither any truer or falser than anyone else’s. This is a big first step to work with people who see the world differently from us. True listening often requires the patience and courage to see and acknowledge how the speaker has perceived his reality. It requires the compassion to understand another’s reality, especially when it is different from our own.

6. Listening Creates Connections

 
When done well, listening creates deep understanding which leads to trust and respect among both parties, even if you were to disagree with the subject at hand. It enables the speaker to release his emotions and feel at ease, often even helping him to crystallise his own thoughts in the process. It reduces stress and helps to ease the situation which creates a foundation – a safe environment in which there are opportunities for collaboration and problem solving. True listening leaves both the parties with a stronger bond than when they started.
Another way to look at listening is like an investment. If you spend 30 minutes truly listening to someone, it can create a connection which will make your relationship stronger. A strong bond with someone can help you avoid stressful situations and make decisions quicker in the future. Since this kind of listening is so rare in our ever distracted world of gadgets and notifications, it is all the more significant when it happens. To know that someone listened and understood what you said is a remarkable gift, and you should not miss a chance to gift it to others.
 
What I have described above is not easy, and it is very tempting to hit back with your own accusations when someone is angry or frustrated with us. But it (listening) is a skill which can be mastered over time. Most of our time spent in communication involves listening, and hence I can’t stress enough on its importance. I also believe that the ability to see a situation from another’s point of view and to shift perspective is one of our most important abilities as human beings, and one which can help us solve many of the problems we face today.

How to Powerfully Step into the New Year 2017

I think it was 1989 when I, for the first time, realised that the 1st of January was a special day. The biggest change for me, one that always took a few weeks to get used to, was to write 1990 instead of 1989 in our school notebooks daily. While the whole world celebrated and wished each other on the 1st of Jan, nothing much else seemed to have changed (for me). Today, as we stand at the cusp of 2017, 28 years have passed since then. Though the fact still remains that nothing much changes between Dec 31 and 1 Jan, if we look at the last 28 years, then we can no doubt say that the whole world and each of our individual lives have changed immensely. While we may not always notice and acknowledge it, change is the only constant in life. A New Year is our annual reminder that time has come to move on and prepare ourselves for the changes coming.

Today I want to ponder and write about how to powerfully step into the new year, so that we are not surprised or shocked by the changes it will bring along. Over the years I have realised that we might very well let the years slide by without much attention; there always comes a time when we are made aware, not often subtly, that time has moved on. So read on if you prefer to enter the new year on your own terms, or skip this article if you feel a new year is too insignificant an event to trouble your brain cells.

1. Complete 2016
The first step before starting anything new is to finish what you are doing now. Just like we put the first foot down before lifting the other one while jogging, just like we get our raw vegetables and spices ready before cooking our food, it is imperative that we finish our 2016 before we even start thinking about 2017. If we ignore this first step, the result will be the same when we start cooking a delicious dish only to realise later we never got the required ingredients.

What I mean by completing 2016 is taking some dedicated time before the new year to –
1. Introspect your goals (if any) at the start of the year and make peace with where you are now.
2. Celebrate your achievements (big and small) and laugh about your failures (missed opportunities)
3. Reflect upon what you have learned, and how you have changed or grown over the year.
4. Free your mind from the grip of the difficult people and hard situations you have encountered this year.
5. Apologize if you realise you have been a difficult person in someone else’s life.
6. Give up any blame, regret or shame gathered this year. There will be new to collect in 2017 🙂
7. Thank and express gratitude to everyone who has made a difference in your life.

2. Know Yourself
The next step before moving ahead is to take some time to know yourself better. That doesn’t mean finding out your blood group or body weight or exam grades or other people’s predictions about your future, but rather looking deep inside yourself to discover your deepest values and motivations. You can do so by answering questions such as –
1. What are your deepest motivations? What have you always wanted to do?
2. What are you really passionate about? Is there something worth devoting your life for?
3. What drives your actions and decisions? What are the values you hold most dearly?
4. What makes your really happy or angry?
5. Who are your biggest inspirations in life, and who are the people you can’t stand? Why?

Answering these questions are anything but simple and there can never be final answers to them. But if we take time and ponder over them and come up with some ideas, we will know ourselves better than anybody else (our parents, friends, grades, achievements, money) can tell us about.

3. Where do you want to be in the next 5 or 10 years?
The next step is to think about the future and exercise your imagination muscles. Think about the kind of person you want to be in the next 3, 5 or 10 years. This might seem like too far ahead in the future, but it doesn’t take long for these years to roll by. Just think about how quickly the last 10 years have passed by. Imagining your own future can feel a bit strange and uncomfortable at first, but soon it will become a lot of fun – just like a game. Do not let this question overwhelm you (which it can), and instead, play it like a game and see what you come up with.

While you imagine your future, think about your deepest desires and ambitions. What do you want to accomplish that will give you the most satisfaction? What changes you want to see in yourself, your family, your society, your company, your city and your country? How do you want people to relate to you after 10 years? In this step you do not need concrete answers, but a vague image of where you want to be. The intention of this exercise is to get you thinking about your future, the actual answers you come up with are not so relevant.

4. Decide milestones or checkpoints on the way
The next step is to identify milestones for the next 1 year for the ambitions which you discovered in the previous step. Don’t let this step scare you. You don’t have to decide milestones for each one of your ambitions – you can choose a few which are the most important to you. Also don’t worry or bother about “how” you will reach your milestones as you have the whole year to think about that.

These milestones will serve as checkpoints which will measure your progress towards your long term ambitions. These milestones can be broken down into quarterly and monthly milestones depending on what you prefer. The only thing to take care while marking these milestones is to make sure they can be observed and measured by anyone easily and they are not vague. Make sure to be clear about what you want to achieve, when and where you will achieve that and with whom. The more numbers you can use the better this step will be in its fruitfulness, and it is best to avoid vague words like soon, sometime, in a few weeks, improvement, better, more, etc.

In the above two steps, it is very important to also include and keep time for recreation, fun, sports and other forms of entertainment. The whole idea of this exercise is be more aware about yourself and prepared for the coming year, and it is very important to not take it too seriously and think only about work and professional stuff. If you are a movie buff and want to watch 100 movies or visit a few movie festivals next year, plan your milestones for it.

Where are you going?

Where are you going?

With the above four steps, you can step into the new year and make a powerful “start“. Of course, that doesn’t mean that your life will pan out exactly as you imagined or that the next year is going to be your best year. It just doesn’t work that way. But knowing where you want to go is always better than hoping to get “somewhere”.

I can write another article about what you can do in the new year to make sure you hit your milestones, but we must always remember that change is the only constant in life, and it can come up in unexpected ways and mess up our plans anytime. But having messed up plans is still better than having no plans at all, and we can repeat the above process anytime to plan afresh for the future – we need not wait for the next “New Year” to repeat this process.

Investing in Yourself and Making Powerful Choices

John was pushing on the gas as he didn’t want to be late for this meeting. If he can crack this deal, it would be a game changer for his company, and he had worked hard for it. But just as he was visualising what he would say in the meeting, his car engine fell silent and it came to a stop soon after.

After struggling for a few seconds, he shouted ‘fuck!’ as his eyes went towards the fuel meter. “This can’t be true”, he uttered in complete shock as he looked at the needle towards the E in his car’s dashboard. He got down and started kicking his car in frustration when a passer by stopped and asked – “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t believe I just ran out of fuel. And I am already running late for this very important meeting.”

“Why didn’t you stop on the way to refuel your car?”, asked the bystander.

“Didn’t I just tell you?? I have to make it to the meeting. I am already late.”

If you are laughing or smiling at the above story, don’t. Because we (Yes! Including you and me) aren’t very different either. In our day to day lives, we are also too often focussed on what is urgent or what seems important today that we end up ignoring what is really important for us in the long run. If we use the “filling the gas” metaphor which I used in the story, then it is evident that it was a case of bad prioritisation, but it is not so simple to see the same in our daily lives.

If you really want to not run out of gas, you need to invest in the person you are, because that will determine how far you will go. Investing in Yourself is the equivalent of “filling up the gas”. Below I am listing down the four steps we all can follow to do so.

1. Understanding Yourself

We are all shaped by our surroundings – our parents, our peer at school and work, our friends, our culture and our experiences as we grow up. It is very rare that we spend time in exploring who we are on a deeper level. What are our values? What makes us really happy or angry? What do we want our life to be about?

Questions like these can help you uncover your personality and understand how you came to be the way you are. By exploring these questions you also get the freedom to choose the kind of person you want to be, or if there is something you want to re-invent or change about yourselves.

2. Awareness of How You Act

We all have certain beliefs which explain us the way things should be or should not be. Almost all of our decisions are based on these beliefs about people and situations in life. It is our mind’s job to ensure our safety and survival in this fast paced world and it does that by making decisions for us, many times which are even unaware to our conscious self. It is like we are running on auto-pilot.

Making efforts to uncover your blind spots and to be more conscious requires being more mindful of your daily decisions – both big and small. It is only through focusing attention on your mind that you can be present to the robotic nature of your life. By being present to this routine will lead you to the next step – of making your own conscious choices.

Invest in Yourself - Warren Buffet

Invest in Yourself – Warren Buffet

3. Making our Own Choices

Once we are aware of how our unconscious mind drives most of our actions, we can be more deliberate about our choices. Each and every choice we make has the potential to change the direction of where we are going, and each choice will have its own consequences.

By being conscious about your own choices based on your values and beliefs, you can take control of the steering wheel of your life and stop being just a passenger in life.

For example – Rita believes her boss is rude and has a bias against her, based on past experiences. Now every time she gets into a meeting with him, her mind acts overtime to sense any hint of a bias towards her, and as soon as that happens, she start to defend or prove herself right. Often it develops into a behaviour pattern which she can’t help. She feels trapped and not having any other option. Now suppose Rita wants to invest in herself and has taken time to think about her life and understand the events that shaped her personality. She realises that being respected and treating others fairly while working towards common goals are amongst her deepest values.

Now when she hears something from her boss which sounds biased against her, she gives her boss the option to explain his point or rephrases it to make sure she understands correctly, but doesn’t assume anything. After that, she acts based on her values and makes her point to her boss to find common ground rather than to prove him wrong. If her boss is still unreasonable and rude towards her, she respectfully informs him that his behaviour bothers her and look for ways forward. In this case – either her boss ends up changing his behaviour, or she decides to change her team or job, but either way she feels in control and empowered about her choices.

4. Mastery via Practice

Once you have made your own choices, the next step is to practice doing daily whatever is required to stay on course. It takes great amount of discipline and practice to unlearn old habits and learn new ones. You will obviously fail many times when trying to form new habits, but eventually these new habits will feel like second nature. Only by being aware (or mindful) of the decisions you take each day you can be deliberate about them to move your life in the direction you want to go. The challenge is to reflect and learn from your experiences and re-invent yourself if the need be.

The Power of a Pause

When Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister of India, I always wondered what could be the reason behind the pauses he took while speaking. Sometimes I thought it was because of his old age, and sometimes people even made fun of him for this habit, but I was always amused by the wisdom of his words – not just his political speeches, but his writings and poems in particular. If we take a pause and think for a moment, we can all recall such people who take longer than usual while speaking or answering questions. In today’s fast paced world, I believe such people can teach us some valuable lessons.

Our Quest for Survival

Human beings are hard-wired for survival, and that is the reason we are the most evolved species on the planet. Our brains constantly listen for signals from our senses (sight, sound, touch) and acts immediately if it senses any danger or threat to our physical well-being. Similarly, our mind always listens from external events, giving us a running commentary as life unfolds around us. When we are conversing, our mind tells us what to speak next or it makes a judgement about the speaker or the spoken. It is the mind’s job to make sure we don’t look bad (or stupid), and it decides (for us) what to do next to save us from (perceived) threats to our social well-being.

Our Ability to Intervene & Take a Pause

If there is one thing which separates us from other living beings, it is our ability to stop this cycle of action and reaction, and to take a pause before deciding how to respond. Most of the times, both action and reaction are simultaneous, with no pause between them. An example could be our spouse asking the same question every morning and we replying with the same response without even blinking. The same happens at work when we talk to our boss or our colleagues.

A small pause before we start to speak or answer can do wonders to a conversation. Most of the times when we are not talking, we are actually waiting to talk. Sometimes the person on the other side has a lot more to say but is hesitant and so he stopped. By taking a pause after he has stopped speaking, and maybe using words like hmm… uh.. ok.. but not jumping in with our views, we can let the other person complete whatever he has in his mind. We can even ask follow up questions like – “Do you have anything else to add?” before beginning to speak ourselves.

Simple and powerful words by Mark Twain

Simple and powerful words by Mark Twain

In my conversations where I have been aware to take a pause, I have noticed that speaking up after letting the other person finish leads to more fruitful conversations and both parties are left satisfied. This satisfaction is of being heard, and of being understood. What’s more strange is that sometimes I don’t even have to speak up, and the conversation automatically leads to where I wanted it to go by just listening. As people are listened to, they let their rigidity of stance soften and consider your view point even without your asking for it. Such is the power of taking a pause and listening.

Responsibility = Our Ability to Respond

We live in a world today where we want everyone to be responsible. We want our children, our political leaders, our colleagues, our managers, our neighbours to all be responsible. “Responsibility” is an over-used word in our media driven society, but I believe being responsible is first and foremost our ability to respond consciously. It can make a huge difference in our lives if we can train ourselves to take a pause often and act not from our mind’s fears and judgements, but from our values, priorities and goals.

Taking a pause will force us to think about what is really important to us, and it can have a profound impact on our work and lives. Pausing creates space for ourselves and others to express themselves fully. It creates positive energy instead of building tension and enables us to handle tough situations in a more mature way.

I want to end with a simple request – to take a pause and think about this article, rather than just believing the commentary your mind has provided you as you were reading it.

The Last Moment

We say the whole world is connected,
But how far apart we have drifted?
We all have touch phones to show,
How many of us are really in touch, though?

Everybody is in a hurry,
Why has life become so fast?
An anxious obsession for the future,
And endless worries about the past..

Each day, every moment must be cherished,
Some will be sunny, and some overcast!
Our enthusiasm must never be diminished,
Just smile, and enjoy life’s every contrast!!

Endless work, targets and deadlines,
Days, weeks and months pass so fast!
Sing a song, read a book, watch a movie,
We never know which one will be our last!!

In the world of facebook and twitter,
Our networks and friend lists are so vast!
Go out and meet your best friend today,
You never know which day will be your last!

Life doesn’t has to be a torture,
Instead we should aim to have a blast!
Every moment can be an adventure,
As we never know which will be our last!!

Life is Lived in the Now and Here

Life is Lived in the Now and Here