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Gathering the Energy for Good Listening

There are certain communication skills that never change.  Listening accurately is one of them. 

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New cars come with instruments that let a driver know how well they are stretching a gallon of gasoline.  Hit the accelerator for repeated jackrabbit starts and the car will let you know you could do better.  Mine has a video display that sends a not-so-subtle message of leaves falling off branches.  In a similar way, he body levels a kind of energy drain for focusing on the feelings and ideas of others.

We don’t have the same metrics to let us know when we draining our personal energy supplies.  But we know.  Spend an afternoon hiking, cutting wood, cleaning a house  or listening to Uncle Fred’s conspiracy theories and we can immediately recognize the effects of physical or mental exhaustion.

before Midnight Wikimedia Commons
The film Before Midnight is as good a primer as any of what full listening can look like.

The last instance is a special case.  Straining to capture another’s words is tiring: perhaps less in terms of calories burned than in the mental fatigue that comes with processing and reacting.

For most of us, speaking appears to be the key communication challenge. Who doesn’t blanch at the thought of formally addressing a group?  But accurate and thoughtful listening is often more demanding. The body levels an energy surcharge for being intensely engaged with the feelings and ideas of others.  Following another’s rhetorical wanderings is more taxing than creating our own. Even though the body appears to be inactive, the mind may need to function like a turbocharger responding to an engorgement of air and fuel.

Some jobs are repetitious. We can perform them without becoming cognitively engaged.  But talk to a psychotherapist, a judge, a court reporter, a good customer-relations specialist or a score of individuals in the “people” business, and most will report mental exhaustion at the end of the day. Hearing others well enough to successfully deal with their problems is an underrated skill. It is much easier to engage in what listening researchers call “bypassing,” which is simply waiting for the person to finish.  The bypasser performs the “face” of a listener, but is really just waiting  to talk about items in their own agenda. I’m certain the hardest work I did as a professor was–of all things–listening to formal student debates.  In my course in Argumentation and Debate I needed to hear and assess speeches, rebuttals, counterclaims, and cross-examination questions and answers. At the end of a debate my notes looked like less organized version of a New York City subway map. Even so, I still missed a lot. Tuning out for even a few seconds allows ideas to escape unheard or underappreciated.

It helps to formally put the task of giving time over to others on the day’s agenda of challenging tasks.

None of us are immune from the fatigue that comes with listening for meaning and nuance.  What helps, however, is the creation of a conscious awareness that an impending listening period will be its own kind of tough work. For this reason, it helps to acknowledge listening challenges to be faced before they start, and to go into this period with a plan to take notes. Just as you might “psych” yourself help for a presentation to a group of people, it is helpful to mentally process the fact that the next minutes or hours will require some prodigious listening. This puts the task on the day’s agenda of the challenging work to be completed.  Think of how often you pass on specific and important information to others who show no sign that they see the moment as a reason to jot some notes.

It would be nice to report that mental effort burns calories.  But that’s not really the case.  Mental exertion does seem to burn glucose, but that’s no pathway to weight control.  And there’s the rub. The energy we expend in active listening produces mental fatigue, but not a physical “burn,” giving most of its benefits to the person who was given the gift of being heard accurately.

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