By Scott Herbst, PhD
bSci21 Contributing Writer
I’ve been thinking a lot, for a fairly long time, about listening. It’s something that, as behavior analysts, in which I think we’re curiously uninterested. At this point, there’s a mound of evidence that, once you have language, the way that things and events function for you are largely given by language. What reinforces your behavior is shaped by language. What motivates you is shaped by language. Discriminative and eliciting stimuli are shaped by language. We live in a world that is constructed in language and to the degree that our language with respect to that world is individually different, we are all functionally living in different worlds. And that’s a big problem for behavior analysis. If you’re trying to make a difference with me (and I am really, really verbal)(really!), and I’m living in a world of my own verbal construction that is fundamentally different than the world of your verbal construction, you’re going to somehow need access to that world. In the natural ebb and flow of life, the only ready thing that is available is what I am saying. It might be a good idea to get interested in listening and how to do it.
And yet, there isn’t much behavior analytic literature that talks about listening as a behavior. Sure, Skinner talked about the listener a lot in Verbal Behavior, but primarily as a vehicle to mediate reinforcement for the speaker. I don’t think that’s all a listener does, or, at the very least, I don’t think it’s what the average (or even exceptional) person thinks a listener is doing. But it is something they’re very interested in. Based on the number of people who claim to be good listeners (well, women; I can’t speak to the men – I don’t browse their dating profiles), I think its safe to make a couple of claims. First, this is something that, generally, is important to people. Second, people think it’s a skill. And, if it’s a skill, people can be better at it than they are.
And, I don’t think people are very good at it. They might be very good at nodding and leaning forward. Or they might be very good at waiting their turn to talk. They might be very good at going, “mm… hmm…” or “uh-huh…” with enough space between responses so that it doesn’t disrupt the flow of conversation. But I don’t think that makes them good listeners; it makes them good nodders, waiters, and animal noise makers. If I were to give a rough definition of what it really means to listen to someone, I would say that listening is something along the lines of seeing the world from another’s perspective without validating or invalidating that perspective.
And that’s not an easy thing to do, which should be very evident from what’s going on in the world. Mostly we don’t get interested in how the world looks to another. Mostly we’re interested in getting people to see how it looks to us. And why shouldn’t we? It looks so right to us! The trouble is, the way the world looks to them also looks right to them. Then they do the same thing to us. And then we go back and forth, back and forth, trying to bend each other’s point of view until one of us sleeps on the couch, clicks “unfriend,” or declares war. If we’re lucky, there are a few people in our lives who see things our way. We call those people friends.
So it isn’t something that comes naturally, and it isn’t even easy once you learn. But you can learn! And it starts with simply being able to attend to the words people are saying. Now, you may say, “that’s not so hard; I’m very good at listening to what people say!” Well, get ready to be disappointed by your listening skills. The exercise I’ll leave you with is to find someone who is willing to give you training. Let them know it won’t take long, and they might actually have someone listen to them for a change. That should be enough for them to take you under their wing. And then have them do the following exercise with you:
- Tell them you are going to ask them a question that they can answer in a single (though relatively long) sentence. Make sure they are clear you only want a sentence.
- Tell them that, after they say it, you are going to repeat it back to them, exactly as they said it, with the same tonality, and none of the words left out, and no extra words added.
- Tell them that if you do it, they should say “pass,” and if you don’t do it, they should say, “no pass.”
- Ask them, “what is something that annoyed you or upset you in the last couple of days and why?”
- Repeat it back to them. Say it the way they said it, with the same tonality, with none of the words left out, and no extra words added.
- Have them pass you or not.
What you will likely discover is that you’re not a very good listener at all. What you will also discover is that, with a little practice, you will get better fast. You will start to hear things that you would have missed, and you will start to get a sense just how much you add to the things people say to you. And you will get better at hearing everything without adding anything. And as you go practice this in real life situations, surprising things will happen (don’t say back exactly what they say when you’re doing this outside of practice; that would be weird).
You see, when people really get heard, they tend to say new things. They tend to say more interesting things. Sometimes they say unbelievably amazing things. A couple of years ago, I realized I wasn’t listening to my uncle. Now, my uncle is an amazing man. When I was a kid, for a couple of summers I went and spent a couple of weeks with him and my aunt up in Wisconsin. It was amazing! One year, the very first night I went outside and there were all of these lights in the sky. It was as if someone had lined up spotlights along the horizon pointing in all directions. I thought it was mildly interesting. I figured there was some event going on, so I went inside to ask him what it was. He came outside, looked at it for about a minute, and said, “WOW! That’s the Northern Lights!! That’s an aurora borealis!” And what was mildly interesting a minute ago was now the coolest thing I had ever seen and we spent all night mesmerized by these lights in the sky. And then the next night we were out back and he looked up and exclaimed, “Hey! A shooting star!” And after a pause, “There’s another one!!” And we spent all night dazzled by a meteor shower. Then we spent the rest of the week fishing, and going to the state fair, and shooting rifles. It was one of the best weeks of my life.
And somewhere that guy got lost. He moved his family down to Tennessee, I grew up, he got older, and somewhere in there he turned into this boring old man who was a lot like many boring old men you might know. He turned into one of those people who repeats himself. If there was a restaurant he thought you should try, he was going to find four different ways to tell you how great it is and then tell you all of them three times. And when we’d get together, I learned to deal with this. I became a very good nodder, waiter, and animal noise maker. And once my head got tired from nodding, I’d go talk to my aunt.
What I finally got present to is that I wasn’t listening to him. No one was. I was paying more attention to the verbal construction “boring” than I was what he might have to say. And then I started to wonder what he might have to say. And I decided to listen.
Then the next time we got together I put this to the test. I started talking with my uncle, and he started repeating himself. And I listened to every word like it was new. And we kept talking, and after awhile, he stopped repeating himself. And later on that evening, something amazing happened – something I’ll never forget. It was he and I in my parents living room, and everyone else was out back, and he started talking to me about his time in Vietnam. Now, I knew he was a vet, but I had no idea what he had actually done there. If he told me, I hadn’t been listening! Well, it turns out he worked in an army hospital. He started sharing about the people he’d taken care of and the things he did for them. He talked about one man in particular who had never been fishing, and how he wanted to learn to fish. He shared about what he went through to get a fishing pole and what it took to get this injured man to the river so he could fish, and what that meant to him and the bond that formed between them. And then he started cry, and he shared about how heartbroken he was when the man died.
And that’s who my uncle is. He makes things magical and he gives people their dreams. And before I took on the practice of listening, there was no space in the environment for that guy to show up. There was only room for boring old man.
To conclude, if you’re not having moments like these, then you’re not listening. If people aren’t saying new things around you, then you’re not listening. If the people around you are boring, or you know what they’re going to say, or nothing they say surprises you, you’re not listening. Go practice. The world needs this.
Postscript: After I submitted this, Todd emailed me back and asked for me to point to some relevant literature. Of course there’s Verbal Behavior, but I don’t think that would actually do anything for anyone in terms of cultivating skills as a listener. I think if you’re interested in developing yourself as a listener, a really good place to begin reading is Nonviolent Communication: A Language for Life, by Marshall Rosenberg. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read that book, but I have read passages, and I’ve spoken to a people who have, and we’re basically following the same model). If you’re interested in more experiential training, the best that I have personal experience with is from Landmark Worldwide. They offer seminars in personal growth, communication, leadership, team building, and so on. Their flagship course, The Landmark Forum, was one of the most personally rewarding weekends of my life. My participation in that weekend is why I have a PhD, it’s why I get to be my full, wild-eyed liberal self with my religious, conservative parents (and them with me) and have love be present, and its why my uncle gets to be his amazing self whenever I am around him. As far as empirical research goes, there isn’t a lot of it. You can look up active listening, but the last time I looked, there wasn’t a lot of what we would consider solid research. If you’re interested in getting some started, drop me a line; I have ideas.
Let us know if you find this advice helpful in the comments below, and remember to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!
About the Author:
Scott Herbst, PhD is the founder and Lead Trainer at SixFlex Training and Consulting. After six years in academia, he left to pursue his passion of training leaders and managers to create, manage, and communicate in work environments where people are productive, excited, and vital. As a course designer, he grounds his curricula in cutting edge research in language and thinking as well as decades of research in operant performance. As a trainer, he is an engaging and powerful speaker who makes learning fun and exciting. You can visit his company site at www.SixFlexTraining.com, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.