I really don’t think we listen that well. In fact, I’d argue we actually suck at it. In a world of overstimulation, our thresholds for being distracted and getting bored are way lower than they used to be. This means that listening requires a lot more from us. But I think listening is one of our most accessible, underrated, and powerful tools as human beings — if we know how to use it.
I interview people for a living, so listening has always been an important part of my tool set. If I want to interview someone well, though, I not only need to listen well, I also need to reply — and the quality of my reply is heavily dependent on the quality of my listening.
I practise something called active listening — which, put simply, is listening with constant enquiry. Instead of just sitting back and nodding every so often, active listening is an end-to-end process of hearing what is said, understanding, comprehending, and engaging with it.
But here’s the thing I’ve discovered more recently: I can use the power of active listening in my day-to-day experiences as well, in almost any situation requiring some kind of cognitive activity.
And that power is called curiosity.
Active listening and curiosity can help me unpack really hard problems, understand complex (and sometimes not immediately interesting) ideas, be more critical of news I hear, and have more meaningful conversations with my partner, friends, and family.
In this post, I wanted to share a very straightforward four-step process that I follow to listen more actively. It involves using the power of curiosity, and in turn making listening a superpower in my everyday life.
What I hope you get out of this post:
- A better understanding of how important curiosity is
- The link between curiosity and active listening
- That you don’t have to be interested in something to be curious
- How to use curiosity to improve your listening and, in turn, improve your learning as well
The power of active listening and curiosity
Hearing is arguably one of nature’s most important senses. Scientists put significant evolutionary weight in the observation that most animals can’t ‘turn off’ their hearing, or close their ears like they can their eyes. The only time that exists is underground or underwater; otherwise, hearing stays ‘switched on’ all the time.
I first understood the power of listening from the On Being podcast. In a lot of Krista Tippett’s conversations with her guests, and explorations of the human condition, this power of listening to other people comes up over and over:
“Listening is actually not primarily about being quiet. It is primarily about being present. The gift of giving our presence to each other is just as urgent as it has ever been. When someone really listens to us, even if it happens in a really mundane encounter, it makes a difference.”
Being present requires generosity; it means showing up, and not just being quiet. Active listening is about the presence of your attention, not the absence of your voice.
“Generous listening”, Krista explains, “is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves… a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions, and take in ambiguity.”
Curiosity, then, is what we use to cultivate that presence in our listening. Young animals know this secret already: They rely almost entirely on curiosity to learn about the world, because it primes their brains to learn new information. Being curious literally affects the brain’s neurochemistry.
Tracy Turner from Michigan State University says that “when children become curious, the brain becomes a fast moving, information gathering tool that encourages learning. The brain’s chemistry changes when we become curious, helping us learn and retain information that might not interest us at all.”
So, the question is: Can we use curiosity to stimulate our brain to take in information better?
And that’s what active listening does. The next part takes you through four steps that I follow to do just that, in any situation.
4 steps I use to practise active listening
Step 1: Listen
This is one part mindset, and one part environment. The former is sometimes harder to control, but you can encourage it by working on the latter. In other words, design your environment to make it easier to listen generously.
This means: Have something nearby to take notes, get comfy, put your phone away, close the other tabs on your laptop, don’t try to cook dinner at the same time… This is all pretty obvious stuff — it might just be a healthy reminder (I know I need it!) — but this first step is still really important.
Designing your environment to encourage more attentive listening will help you get into the right mindset, and will help you hone in and focus on your curiosity. Enter, step 2…
Step 2: Feed your curiosity
Cool, now you need to give your curiosity something to work with: Questions.
Shane Parrish wrote about questions on the Farnham Street blog: “Questions are the means by which we explore ourselves, each other, and the world.”
Being curious is easy if you’re interested in the thing. If, however, the thing you’re listening to is boring, curiosity can be really hard to muster. For example, when listening to a lecture on a course you don’t enjoy. But, here’s the magic: You don’t need to be interested in something to be curious!
For me, the easiest way to stimulate a curious mind is to ‘poke’ at the information as you hear it by coming up with questions. Not asking them, just thinking of them.
“Counter to our notion that everything must have an answer”, Parrish writes, “some of the most worthwhile questions are the ones with no immediate answers.”
This could be thinking of questions as someone is speaking like “What does that word mean?” or “Why did they say that bit first?”, or even creating hypothetical situations in your head like “What if that was reversed?” or “What if we didn’t do that?”.
This process gets you actively engaging with the ideas and words you’re hearing, helping you create some visual memory around each idea as you come up with these questions and imaginings.
The biggest mistake I see other interviewers make, however, is they come up with a question they really like, and hold onto it until there’s a gap for them to interject. This means they stop engaging with new information because they’re worried they’ll forget their question, and often miss really important or really interesting information.
The key with feeding your curiosity is to not get too attached to any one question in particular. Keep thinking of questions, keep being curious. You’ll remember the questions that matter.
Step 3: Translate
Next, you want to make sure you’ve understood what was being said, and find your blindspots — the gaps in your knowledge. I call this translating. It’s rare that what someone says fits exactly into your comprehension, because you have different contexts and different experiences. So, it’s almost guaranteed that there will be blindshots on either side, and this step is to find them.
Translating can take two forms, depending on the situation:
1. If it’s a 1:1 conversation, or you’re responding in real-time: Translating is about paraphrasing what someone has just said to you, without using their words. Being curious in real-time doesn’t give you the luxury of digesting information, but it does give you direct access to the source of the information. Paraphrasing has been so useful for me, especially in interviews, because it immediately shows me exactly where I’m lacking context, and shows the person I’m talking to where their assumptions about what I know might be wrong.
This forces me to move past just remembering the words someone says (which I may not even understand fully), and put their ideas into my conceptual realm. Plus, it also increases how much we remember: It stimulates more parts of the brain, and has mnemonic benefits on how we retain new information.
2. If it’s a 1:many conversation — like a meeting or a lecture — or you’re consuming information in your own time: Translating is about spending a few minutes trying to say the information back to yourself, in your own words, or mapping it out for yourself visually. In this case, you might not have the luxury of direct access to the source of information for clarifying knowledge gaps, but you do have reflection time.
For me, I find it really useful to open a blank page in my notebook, and just start writing and drawing whatever I can recall. Words, ideas, questions I came up with, pictures, graphs… I treat it kind of like a Morning Pages exercise.
If it’s available to me, I also find it really useful to map the complex ideas I’ve just heard onto concepts or models I know really well. For example, if I’ve just listened to a hard-to-understand and high-level meeting about our company’s goals for the next quarter, I draw out my own project’s missions, and the things I’m working on right now, so that I have new things and things I know well physically next to each other on a piece of paper.
This really helps me translate big, complex ideas into things I know better, and gives me something to take into the next, and final step.
Step 4: Exercise your curiosity
Having paraphrased and translated what I’ve just listened to — either in real-time, or in reflection — the next step is to move my curiosity out of my thoughts, and into conversation. This is where listening, and learning, become truly active.
Let’s use the meeting example I just gave: Having a rough idea of what I still don’t understand, as well as the things I’m doing and how they compare to the company’s big goals for the next few months, I can ask very specific questions about what I don’t know, and ask for help bridging the gap between that stuff, and what I do know. So, I might say:
“I know you said we want to grow demand by increasing our MQLs and SQLs, but the people I work with are mainly on the supply-side of our community and those two metrics are really far-removed from the work I do on a daily basis. Could you perhaps elaborate on three things, just to help me better understand this goal: Firstly, what factors brought about that decision; secondly, how should someone like me — who writes content with our supply-side community — be thinking about a demand-driven goal; and, thirdly, how can I drive MQLs and SQLs in my day-to-day role?”
Without these steps, I’d likely freak out during a meeting like this, panic at the thought that I’m doing everything wrong, worry that I don’t actually understand the work I do, and put loads of unnecessary pressure on myself to work overtime, rethink my own missions, and be a better employee.
The power within generous listening and genuine curiosity is that I can control information as it comes in, and work through it so that it makes sense to me. It gives me a chance to know what I don’t know, and make high-level ideas more concrete and tangible.
I used the example of a meeting, but like I said at the start: Whether it’s understanding a political debate, preparing for university exams, making sense of a friend’s frantic rant about their relationship, engaging more usefully in meetings… This skill is useful for learning in almost any situation.
Active listening is a daily superpower that we don’t use nearly enough. We all have it in us to be curious, and it’s something that can make daily living more interesting, and easier to understand.
If you tried out this method, let me know what you thought and what you learned! I’d love to hear about your own experience with listening more actively, and share some stories about when it’s worked, and when it hasn’t!
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