Listening to others: the essence of communication

One of the most important challenges in human relationships is listening to others. 

It is often said that the entire time you are talking you are not listening to others, but it is also true that human communication requires both actions. So, are you more of a talker or a listener?

There are people whose nature is more inclined towards expression, verbalization, and openly sharing with others different events in their lives. Others, on the other hand, are more reserved or withdrawn. They prefer, for different reasons, to remain in an apparently more secondary role: that of listening to others and observing from silence. 

In general, people alternate between both facets, since both are essential for us to interact in a normal way. An effective conversation cannot exist only with one-way monologues and neither can it be based on monologues coming from both interlocutors who simply alternate. It is not by chance that conversations are also called “dialogues”. 

Learn how to talk, learn how to listen

Talking and listening to others is part of our lives, but which of the two do we like better? Which one do we feel more comfortable with?

It seems that we generally enjoy talking more than listening to others. It is true that talking often requires less work than listening and, in addition, it puts us in the important role of the situation, the leading role. This greatly strengthens our self-esteem, we could say it is “refreshing” for the ego and that it is necessary. 

In fact, there is nothing wrong with it as long as it is done in a balanced way. Talking is the most sophisticated element we use to interact and is essential for us to be able to communicate our needs and opinions, as well as to tell others what is happening to us or to influence them. 

On the other hand, listening to others is essential to find out who the other person is and what they have to tell us about themselves and about us. This allows us to get to know them and to communicate to them -without words- that they are important to us, at least at that moment. That is to say, listening to others allows us to recognize them, to give them a place. 

What basically happens is that we cannot learn interesting information if we are not listening to others carefully enough. For this, as we said at the beginning, we must remember that while we are talking we are not listening. Therefore, when communicating, there must be harmony between the two. A real conversation is a dialogue, not a chained succession of small monologues. 

Talking and listening to others via social networks

New technologies, particularly social media and the different apps through which it is possible to communicate, have had an enormous influence on precisely that, on our way of communicating. 

Traditionally, human communication – mail and telegraphs aside – has taken place orally, while current communication technologies allow written communication in real-time and with multiple additions and embellishments: audios, gifs, emojis, files… This has a great impact on the effectiveness of communication, for example in terms of how understandable or misleading a message is, both in our personal relationships and when it comes to communication at work. Also regarding the way we talk to each other and listen to each other, in this case, to read each other. 

On the other hand, listening to others requires sufficient time and rest to be able to pay close and sustained attention to the other person’s speech and therefore be able to grasp enough content and understand it properly. 

Anything that implies acceleration hinders this process or makes it more superficial: it prevents us from listening to others with the necessary quality and warmth. 

Technology, the abundant and sometimes dizzying activity, the use of social media, are circumstances that greatly accelerate the flow of information we receive and the change from one stimulus to another: they do not train us to rest or to keep our attention on what our interlocutor is saying, but rather the opposite: to jump quickly from input to input. Obviously, this has its advantages in many aspects, but it can have a negative influence on the ability to listen with real depth and presence to the person “in front of us”.

What to do when the other person doesn’t stop talking

Somehow, those who systematically do not let others speak manifest certain selfishness. Selfishness does not always manifest itself in this way, but it does when we do not listen to others, when we interrupt them frequently and do not take on board what they tell us, but try to cover up everything we need to say ourselves. 

When we have not learned how to listen, we are focusing only on our need to speak and our need to be listened to – which are not exactly the same need – and not so much on the needs of the other person. 

Whoever is not able to listen and only focuses on talking is a person who is disconnected from the outside, in this case from their interlocutor, and is only connected to themselves. Everything is about them, they believe they deserve all the time in the world and are not very empathetic. They show little interest in what is happening to the person in front of them, hence they do not care to give space to it, but take all the space for themselves. 

It should also be taken into account that there are people who are so fast-paced or impulsive that they do not make these interruptions out of malice, but simply out of unconsciousness because they are not connected in a harmonious way both with themselves and with the outside world. They too have yet to learn how to listen.

Finally, a narcissistic component should be taken into account, what is colloquially known as “they love to listen to themselves”. These are people who find a special delight in the mere fact of being listened to while speaking, in a format that has more to do with a conference (unidirectional) than with a conversation (bidirectional). 

How do we make sure the other is not the only one talking?

Use assertiveness and other communication skills. It can be something very subtle, such as not giving up and simply redirecting the conversation to the point where we have been interrupted. We can even accompany it -just in case- with a gentle indication to avoid further interruptions: “Now let’s get on with it but first I would like to go back to what I was saying”, “Let me finish the sentence for a moment, I wanted to add something”. 

Another option is to allow the other person to let go of whatever they have to say and then feel that we can take more ground in the conversation. A third way out, if the situation or the person is important, is to listen to them -even though they are not listening to us- to understand more about what is happening that leads them to take up all the space in the conversation. 

On the other hand, if the situation or the person does not matter much to us, it may be wiser to give up and not spend energy communicating with someone who does not want to communicate with us or is simply not available to do so at the moment. 

When we talk too much

Being aware that we tend to monopolize the conversation and that we must learn how to listen better is already a big step. The next step is to remember that. Make an effort to go slowly, make sure that the first thing we do is to spend some time with the other person, ask them how they are doing, follow their topic even if we interrupt them, talk about them even if we interrupt them. That can compensate for their feeling of not being listened to. 

We can also do it the other way around: realize that we have been monopolizing the conversation for a while and keep quiet, bring up a new topic, indicate to the other(s) in some way that we are giving them back the conversation, and follow their thread. It is about connecting with them, not disconnecting from the conversation (especially if it is a group conversation, where it is easier to slip away) just because we do not have a say. 

We all need to practice restraining our impulse to speak up. There is no magic formula to achieve this, it is a matter of working on our ability to control our impulsiveness and show interest in others. Even if it is just courtesy, do not monopolize. Alternate spoken participations in the conversation with “silent participations”: keep in mind that while we are listening to others attentively we are also present. 

Social and communication skills, including the art of speaking and listening to others, are crucial to healthy interpersonal relationships. If you feel you have a problem in this area, it’s okay, the important thing is to identify what it is and begin to solve it.

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