Emotional intelligence. That elusive, ethereal quality that some people seem to have in spades, while the rest of us are left scrabbling around in the social dirt like confused, charmless mole people.
EI is complex, but one of the best ways to increase it is simple: learn how to be a good listener. Listening is the golden ticket, the unsung hero of the social Olympics.
Problem is, these days listening is about as popular as a landline. Everyone wants to be the podcast; nobody wants to be the audience. And most of us don’t even attempt to improve our listening skills. (Perhaps that’s why the most meaningful connection some people have today is with the ‘Skip Intro’ button on Netflix.)
Well, it’s time to get some actionable answers. New York Times columnist David Brooks spoke to a lot of social psychology experts for his new book, “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.”
He gleaned a number of useful insights that can help.
Let’s get to it…
We all want to be heard, to be the main character, even if our life story is more “straight-to-streaming” than “box office hit.” And we’ve all been in a conversation where the other person had clearly tuned out. Not fun.
Seriously, why is this so common? Are we that boring? Not necessarily. The average person speaks at the rate of about 120-150 words a minute. But our brains can process information a lot faster than that. So there’s slack. And our attention flags.
I’m not immune. My mind tends to wander like a toddler in a supermarket. It’s supposed to be focusing and then suddenly it’s run off and is now shoving a chocolate bar down its pants while hollering about dinosaurs. A more accurate representation of my cognitive process, you will not find.
The solution? Treat attention as all or nothing. Black or white. When someone is speaking, stop everything and just listen. Commit 100%.
Use what experts call the “SLANT method”: Sit up, Lean forward, Ask questions, Nod your head, Track the speaker.
When you really listen to someone, you’re giving them a psychological hug. You’re saying, “I see you, I hear you.” It’s about making them feel like they’re the most important person in the room.
The biggest mistake people make in this arena is thinking that the listening itself is the only part. Nope. You need to make it clear to the other person that you’re listening…
You know when you’re talking and the other person is quiet and motionless and you get nervous they’re not paying attention? You’re not the only one. When we listen passively, people can become self-conscious and inhibited. This harms the conversation and makes it less likely you’ll connect.
So listen intently. Actively. We hear about active listening all the time – we just don’t do it. So be a “loud listener.” You want to be nodding so hard that people are wondering if you’re having a localized seizure. You follow their every inflection, every gesture, with the sort of enthusiasm normally reserved for a dog watching a squirrel. The person speaking should feel like they’re not just being heard, but understood on a molecular level.
Okay, I’m exaggerating — but you get the point. David uses the metaphor of being a host at a dinner party. You wouldn’t just sit there and serve food; you’d actively try and be warm. You’d show hospitality. You’d be deliberately trying to make them feel welcome. Bring the same attitude to every conversation.
So what should we steer the conversation toward for best results?
You might think people want to discuss things that are new and different. And you’d be wrong.
Cerebrally, that might be more interesting but it can make it harder to connect emotionally. Research shows people like to talk about stuff they’re familiar with, that they have a connection to. Everyone likes to chatter about the things they know and love.
Trying to get a conversation rolling? Make an effort to find out what the other person is passionate about. Get them jawing about their favorite sports team or hobby and the discussion is going to be like one of those 1980’s power ballads that starts slow and then rockets you into the stratosphere.
Now let’s cover a common issue that most books on the topic don’t discuss: what if someone is kinda boring? What if you’re not that engaged and maybe they’re not engaged? How can you facilitate things and shift the chat into high gear?
Okay, you got them talking and you’ve come to the conclusion they are human Ambien. You’re begging for the sweet relief of silence.
Some folks tell otherwise boring stories in an interesting way while other people can make the most exciting stories lame. We might chalk it up to the X-factor of charisma but often it’s due to emotional constipation. They’re giving the facts but not infusing it with feelings, drama, or personal perspective.
When listening to a story we don’t just want to hear what happened, we want to know how they experienced it. What was going through their mind? How they felt. So you need to do a little existential spelunking and draw this out of them.
They mention they were in a terrible car accident but their presentation is actually as interesting as the insurance company’s report. So ask them what their first thought was when it occurred. Ask them what they felt. Were they terrified? Were they confident they could handle it? Do they feel differently about it now that some time has passed?
Conversations aren’t just about conveying information. That’s okay for the weather app on your phone, but not for human interaction. Get to the bedrock of emotions. Get to the personal perspective, the social implications. That’s where everything gets more interesting.
Now what’s a dead simple, concrete way to show we’re actively listening and deepen the conversation?
You’ve probably heard of this technique before. Looping is when you repeat the last few words someone just said. It shows you’re paying attention and encourages them to continue.
Them: “And then he started yelling at me.”
Them: “Yeah. I couldn’t believe it.”
Looping is like being the human version of a CAPTCHA test. “Click all the boxes with traffic lights to prove you’re not a robot.” Except in this case, it’s, “Repeat everything I say so I know you’re not just a nodding mannequin.” And it works.
Just being intent on looping helps conversations because it makes you listen more carefully. You have to so you know what to reply with.
Constantly repeating the last word or two they said can get awkward, so David also recommends paraphrasing their statement as a question to make it more organic. “So this was really escalating?”
Okay, time to discuss difficult conversations. How do you break out of angry doom spirals when discussions turn into arguments?
Things get heated. Maybe you’re discussing politics. Every statement feels like you’re stepping on a conversational IED. What to do?
Ask yourself, “What disagreement about values underlies this argument?”
Rather than assuming the other person is inherently evil or hopelessly brainwashed, think about the difference you two have in underlying values. Fairness vs merit, order vs freedom, etc.
Few people want to live in a dystopian hellscape and as long as they’re not egregiously wrong on the facts, it usually comes down to priorities. They value X over Y and you prefer Y over X. This is something you can discuss semi-sanely. But when you get mired in specifics there’s little wiggle room and you’re just adding hot sauce to the taco of turmoil.
Asking someone about their values is a lot more interesting and a lot less fraught. As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett said, “Being curious about your friend’s experience is more important than being right.”
And what should we never do if we want conversations to go well?
They’re like the emotional terrorists of the conversational world. “Oh, you stayed up until 2 AM working? Cute. I haven’t slept since the Reagan administration.”
We all hate these people and I have considered starting a fund to have them disintegrated with acid. But there’s a more subtle version of topping that many of us still engage in…
Someone starts telling you about what they’re dealing with and rather than letting them open up, you compare it to something you’ve dealt with – and then you grab the conversational ball and run away.
“But I was just relating to what they were saying…”
No, you weren’t. You were shifting the attention back to yourself. Nobody likes this. You’re saying, in effect, “Your problems aren’t that interesting to me; let me tell you about my own, much more fascinating ones.”
Instead, let people have the floor. They’ll appreciate it and the connection between you will be stronger.
So what should we definitely be doing as good listeners?
Ever had a conversation and realized the other person never asked you a single question? Doesn’t feel good. So don’t do that to someone else.
Sometimes asking questions can feel like being deep-fried in a vat of awkward. You don’t want to sound ignorant. You don’t want to pry. Or you want to be cool and “not seem too interested.” Yeah, asking questions can be tricky but by not doing it you’re avoiding a chance for greater closeness and intimacy.
Bad questions are ones that don’t involve a surrender of power on your part; they have an implied evaluation. Where did you go to college? What do you do? You sound more judgy than a New Yorker critic.
“How’s it going?” or “What’s up?” are another way of saying, “I’m greeting you, but I don’t actually want you to answer.” Next time you’re about to ask someone “How’s work?” remember: that’s the conversational equivalent of store-brand vanilla ice cream. Instead, maybe serve up a triple scoop of “What’s the most absurd thing you believed as a child?” followed with sprinkles of “Why?” on top.
Good questions are more open-ended, can’t be answered in one word, and give the person some control and latitude when answering. They often start with “How did you…,” “What’s it like…,” or “Tell me about…”
I like asking questions that are a little more whimsical. Yeah, it’s a risk but often it’s worth it. By the time you’re well into adulthood, you’re basically the human version of a classic rock radio station that’s played the same 20 songs since 1998. Many people are thrilled to answer something new versus giving the same tired replies.
Sure, asking someone, “What’s the last thing you Googled?” might lead to a dead-end or a dead stare, but it might also lead to a conversation about why they were looking up the life expectancy of a sea turtle at 3 AM. And that’s a lot less boring than “How was work?”
Okay, time to round it all up – and we’ll learn what can happen when you get really good at listening…
Here’s how to increase emotional intelligence by being a better listener:
What’s the benefit of listening more and having greater emotional intelligence? Better relationships. Duh. But it’s interesting to see – at the extreme – just how much these simple skills can make a difference…
Years ago at Bell Labs, senior executives realized that there was a cohort of researchers who were vastly more productive. They pumped out more patents and did better work. Obviously, the execs wanted to know what was causing this. What was this secret weapon that was making some of their researchers so much more effective? And the secret weapon was…
After tracking down every lead to figure out what was turning this subgroup of employees into super-researchers they realized the only real thing they all had in common was every one of them frequently had breakfast or lunch with an electrical engineer named Harry.
He was a pretty brilliant guy. But more importantly, he listened. He asked good questions. He related to them. And, inevitably, brought out the best in them.
Adulthood is about friendship fine-tuning, like you’re the technician at a sophisticated space telescope. You don’t want to be with the “cool” people anymore. You want to be with “your” people. The people who listen and support you. So learn how to do the same for them.
All too often in the journey of life, it’s not about the path or your goals…
It’s about who’s riding shotgun.