"Are you paying attention?!"-Five Habits of Endearingly Good Listeners

Sean Kernan


I make my living as a writer. I spend most of my days in front of a computer screen. I’m quite introverted. I rarely socialize.

As a child, every report card included the comment, “Doesn’t listen.” Eventually, I was diagnosed with ADHD and even put on experimental drugs. Even further, at age 37, my hearing has already faded some, like my parents.

In the face of all of these facts, I’d wager you’d very much enjoy talking to me, and I the same of you. I’m more predisposed to terrible listening than the vast majority of you, and yet, even my most bitter -ex will tell you I’m a great listener. And it’s all by choice.

They listen with imagery

There are many in this world who don’t understand people like you and me (readers). Even the idea of enjoying a great book on a rainy day seems wasteful.

They aren’t stupid. They just aren’t wired like us. We see the scenes unfolding. We can reach out and touch the main characters. One of the biggest social breakthroughs I had was applying this concept to listening.

If someone says, “We got delayed getting here, it rained the whole time.” I’ll visualize his wipers at max speed, to the cacophony of rain. Or if he says, “I took my dogs to dog beach earlier.” I may imagine his dogs going wild, chasing other pooches. It takes my mind off of myself, my insecurities, my straying thoughts, and directs that mental energy at the speaker. And, it makes listening far more interesting.

Most highly empathetic people already do this. This is simply an empathy backdoor for us readers. It unleashes fluid conversation and understanding.

Don’t just hear what they’re saying, see it too. Listen like a reader.

They wait, to listen

Dr. Richard Muller of UCLA wrote, “There are two kinds of listeners. Those who listen. And those who wait to talk.”

If you are like me and get social anxiety, you may quickly lock onto your next talking point before the other person is finished talking. This impulse is often driven by fear of silence and judgment.

There’s a simple solution: make it a point not to think of your phrase until they’re finished talking. Then wait 1–2 seconds before talking. I often nod to acknowledge I’ve heard them before starting.

This serves two purposes:

  1. It gives you time to gather your thoughts and have the full context of what they’ve said.
  2. It takes the pressure off of you to talk, allowing you to relax and listen.

Most people just want to be accepted and heard. You can be a facilitator simply by listening. If you do, you’ll be a welcome spirit, free to roam in their world.

I’d wager there’s rarely been a case of someone saying, “I can’t stand him. He’s an amazing listener.”

They know the cost of not listening

A full decade ago, my soon-to-be-wife and I were meeting with possible caterers for our upcoming wedding. We met with a nice man in a tiny office near our house.

After sitting across from him, discussing our options, I was very impressed and thought his rates were reasonable. I left feeling certain we’d use him. We got in the car, and my partner was immediately agitated. I said, “What’s wrong?”

“He didn’t listen. I told him I didn’t want several of those things during our call and he put them in the proposals anyways.” And out went a possible deal.

Professor Paul Barnwell recently ran an experiment with his classroom. After years of watching his students secretly play with their phones and bumping into walls while texting, he broke them up into small groups and challenged them to create their own podcasts. That was it. Any topic. Just have a conversation.

Then, he watched in horror: they didn’t know how to talk to each other. There were so many painful silences. They were just throwing words back and forth. There’s was no intuition, sensibilities, or eagerness to feel each other’s emotions or persona. It devolved to hard Q&A interviews, devoid of life. Barnwell asserts that conversational competence is the foremost challenge of this generation. And to converse, you must also be able to listen.

In fact, listening will be at the center of many pivotal moments in your life: interviews, dates, negotiations, meetings.

If a tree fell in the woods and you didn’t hear it, it squashed you.

They seek to understand you, not your words

Great listeners treat conversation as improvisation. There isn’t an agenda, a desire to prove anything. They don’t repeat the same stories and jokes they’ve said 100x in other conversations.

They also don’t mirror stories. If the other person begins talking about their bad boss, they don’t talk about their equally bad or worse boss. That just brings the attention back to themselves rather than practicing empathy. Instead, they learn about that person’s situation and ask questions.

Good listeners suspend judgment. Rather than drawing instant conclusions about a person’s morality, intelligence, or worth, they seek to learn.

Every person in this world knows at least one thing you don’t. And each person you meet has something to offer. If you instantly draw base conclusions about a person, you’ll hamstring your ability to hear them out.

Stay neutral. Don’t moralize. Master the art of enjoying people, and they will surely enjoy you.

They listen like a creative writer

There are two competing styles of writing: outliners, and discovery writers. I’m the latter.

A discovery writer doesn’t have all the moves mapped out beforehand. They have a general idea. Then they let their hands type. And quite often, the characters and storylines reveal themselves.

A conversation is a discovery too. What does this person care about? What motivates them? How do they see the world? These are fundamental questions writers ask when creating a character. I’ve actually created several characters based on people I’ve met at cocktail parties. Discovery conversation is a fun game, a treasure hunt, a search, to get to the center of who they are and what makes them tick. Would recommend.

Quick tip: ask them what they are passionate about. If they aren’t sure, just listen, and note their body language to steer the conversation. Their voice will get higher pitched and have more energy when you’re talking about something they like. Discover the character you’ve just met.

Final Takeaway

People go to such great lengths to impress people and be liked. It’s ironic because they often do this by talking too much and accomplishing the exact opposite. All they had to do was listen.

Great listeners are actually exceedingly rare. And it isn’t hard to become one.

1. Listen with imagery (listen like a reader).
2. Don’t form talking points before they are done (wait a second before talking).
3. Know the cost of bad listening (interviews, dates, meetings, negotiations).
4. Treat conversation like improvisation (no repeating or one-upping).
5. They discover the character (their motivations, desires, inner mechanics).

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