1: Perhaps you have a friend like Jane.

“She is funny and social, a talker who uses her eyes, face, hands, and voice to pull you in and keep you listening, no matter what the topic,” Esther Choi writes in her book Let the Story do the Work.

Jane is a great talker. Not so much when it comes to listening.

“The rare times when I’m doing more of the talking,” Esther writes, “I’ve noticed a pattern: Jane’s gaze wanders, and she rarely maintains eye contact; sometimes she bites her fingernails; often she finishes my sentences for me and/or interjects to tell her own story.”

The bottom line? When Jane is listening, “she doesn’t display the high level of focus and energy she radiates when she is talking,” Esther observes.

“It’s easy to imagine that Jane’s just not that interested in me or what I have to say. In reality, nothing can be farther from the truth. Jane does care about me—a lot. But I only know that from our history together, not because of the way she listens. And I don’t think she realizes that she sometimes gives off this impression of not caring.”

We learn from other people all the time. Sometimes we learn what not to do. To avoid showing up like Jane, Esther Choi suggests we “listen aggressively.”

2: We begin by thinking of ourselves as a film director, Esther suggests. As we listen, we create a motion picture in our heads. We imagine the person we are listening to has had an experience that can be turned into a blockbuster film. We guess what the setting looks like. If the speaker describes her cubicle, we could picture a cubicle farm right out of Dilbert, with her sitting there amidst her co-workers.

We do this exercise to keep our minds focused on what the person is saying.

We are curious. We remain open. “True listening is a function of being present to other people’s words and meaning,” advises storytelling advocate Annette Simmons, “even when, or especially when, their words or meaning might potentially disconfirm or destabilize your own.”

By asking clarifying questions, we demonstrate we care about what is being said and want to understand fully. We replay back what we’ve heard using our own words. If our paraphrasing suggests we didn’t quite understand, then the other party now has a chance to clarify. “In many situations, especially emotion-laden ones, there’s nothing more validating than hearing your thoughts, experiences, and feelings expressed in someone else’s voice,” Esther suggests.

We want to pay attention to our body language and avoid crossing our arms or legs, which communicates we are closed off or feeling defensive. “Professional counselors recognize clients shut down if they perceive the therapist as judgmental, whether as the result of verbal or nonverbal responses,” Esther writes. “So the best way to show support and engagement is to really try to feel what [the other party] feels. . . It works best when you truly feel the emotion you are expressing. But even basic mirroring, in gestures and words, can be powerful.”

3: While listening, it’s natural for our own stories to come to mind. “But try to resist the temptation to interject,” Esther writes. “The spotlight should remain on the audience, not you.”

We listen not only with our ears but with our eyes and with our hearts. Our gaze is particularly important. We want to maintain eye contact without giving the impression we are “staring them down,” Esther writes. One tactic is to alternate our focus between the speaker and nearby empty space.

“For every one part talking, do three parts listening,” recommends retired Northwestern University communications professor Paul Arntson.

More tomorrow.


Reflection: Am I a good listener?

Action: Listen aggressively to a friend or colleague this week by experimenting with some of Esther’s ideas.

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