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Shut Up and Listen!

posted on January 15th 2019 in Headmaster's Blog

I have two New Year’s resolutions. One is to establish a regular exercise regime (not going too well so far) and the other is to shut up and listen much more.

An unfortunate side effect of my job is that I am required to pontificate a lot. For example, I am required to write blogs like this one, and deliver assemblies. I am also required to lay down rules and procedures. This increases the danger that I become someone who talks more than they listen, and that is not a good thing.

Like most people, I like to think that I am a good listener and, like most people, I am probably wrong. There are two reasons why most of us are not good listeners. One is that listening is not natural to us. We are hard-wired to operate on instinct and leap to immediate judgements. We are not hard-wired to carefully listen to different points of view and rationally evaluate them. The second reason why listening well is not easy is because it involves hearing quite a lot of things that you would rather not hear. This is something that we all naturally resist.

When talking to the pupils about this I identify five classics mistakes we all tend to make in conversations that stop us from really listening. They are as follows:

  • We tend to approach conversations as an opportunity to win rather than an opportunity to learn. This does not apply to all conversations but it applies to more than we would like to think. If the aim (whether conscious or unconscious) of entering into a conversation is to defeat the other person’s point of view then this obviously inclines us not to listen to their actual position but to construct a ‘straw man’ version of it in our heads that is then easier to knock down.
  • We often tend to concentrate on performing rather than listening. That is, our mind is so busy thinking about the next thing that we are going to say that it is not focused on what anyone else is saying. Teachers see this every day in lessons, when one child is speaking and three or four others will be desperately stretching their hands into the air, eager to show how clever they are, rather than actually listening to their classmate.
  • When people come to us with their worries or dilemmas, we are often too quick to give advice. In such situations it is tempting to provide the other person with an answer as quickly as possible, but this stops us from really listening and usually results in advice that is either useless or will not be followed even if it happens to be useful. When we go to other people for advice we often do not want an answer from them, we simply want them to ‘hold our hand’ as it were, and act as a critical friend while we work our own way towards a solution. We want them to listen to what we think and feel, not tell us what they think we are or should be thinking or feeling.
  • We assume that we know what the other person wants to hear, so we tell them. But our assumption about what they want to hear is often wrong. Again, school pupils do this a lot. When a teacher talks with a pupil one-on-one about how they are doing and what help they need, the pupil often tells the teacher what they think they want to hear, rather than using the opportunity to open up a genuinely useful discussion. I know from my experience as a line-manager that adults can do this as well. It is a wasted opportunity for everyone concerned.
  • Finally, we have a terrible habit of turning conversations about one thing into conversations about everything. Anyone who is married will be familiar with this situation, when one of you raises a concern about one thing and the conversation quickly becomes a heated argument about everything the two of you have done to upset each other over the last decade. But this also happens a lot in much bigger social and political conversations. The Brexit debate is a perfect example. One of the reasons it has become so poisonous is that it is not just about Brexit but about everything that the various social tribes within the UK dislike and resent each other for. These sorts of arguments are unresolvable and can only lead to further conflict.

So, having listed some classic ways in which we fail to listen properly, it is fairly easy to lay down five golden rules on how to listen well:

  • Don’t try to win conversations. The point of a conversation is not to win but to learn
  • Conversations are not a performance art. Not everything is about you
  • Most of the time, people don’t want you to tell them what to do. They want you to listen while they work out what to do themselves
  • If someone asks you a question, answer it honestly and carefully. Don’t assume you know what they want the answer to be
  • If someone starts a conversation about one thing, do them the courtesy of making sure that it remains a conversation about that one thing

You may think you already do all five of these things well, but there is a good chance you are wrong. If we all made a concerted effort to follow these five rules every day, it would go a long way to making the world an easier and better place to live in.

So, please wish me luck with my resolution and, if you happen to be involved in a conversation with me at any point this year and feel that I am not doing a very good job of listening, feel free to remind me of this blog.