One Mouth, Two Ears

We’ve all got two ears but only one mouth, right? This means we should do about double the listening versus speaking, but the truth is doing so goes against our natural instinct. We are wired to express and talk about ourselves—to the extent that it provides the same type of neurological stimulation as sex. Fair enough, but that doesn’t mean talking nonstop is acceptable or helpful to our relationships.
It’s time to view listening as the true win-win in cultivating deeper relationships. When you listen, you not only get to learn about someone, you are (paradoxically to some) seen as more charismatic, interesting, and enjoyable to interact with. So if your end goal is to be those things, listening is the skill you must perfect. It’s a simple skill, but certainly nothing close to easy.

One Mouth but Two Ears

Picture someone visiting a new therapist or counselor, and the dialogue they have in their first session. The client is, quite naturally, feeling a little nervous and exposed, and is trying to find their feet—this is the first time they’ve done anything like this, and they’re not quite sure about how it all works. Are they going to lie down on a couch and be asked about their attraction to their mother or father? Will they uncover something traumatic from their past that they have blocked out?

They come into the room and the therapist invites them to sit. The client sits and eventually the therapist invites them to talk, saying, “So, what’s brought you here today?”

“Well, it’s hard to say, actually,” says the client, who starts describing how they want to use therapy as a place to learn to be better, and not necessarily to fix anything that’s wrong.

“So, it seems like you’re not quite sure about what you want here,” says the therapist.

The client starts to wonder if they’re wasting this professional’s time.

“No, not exactly. It’s just…I’m sorry, I don’t know how this goes. I suppose you see a lot of people every day with real problems…”

“You don’t think your problems are real, then?”

“Um. Hmm. That’s not what I meant. It’s not that I have…problems, it’s more like, I just want to be the best version of myself, you know?”

“It’s OK. There’s nothing to be ashamed about. Seeking help for your problems doesn’t mean you’re weak, you know.”

The rest of the session carries on but the client has already decided, in this first two minutes, never to return to therapy again. Why? For those who are skilled listeners, the reason is probably obvious: the therapist did a really bad job of listening. Did you catch it? Let’s review.

Firstly, the therapist tells the client what they feel, without checking whether their interpretation is correct, or even wanted. It’s a series of statements and assumptions rather than acceptance. The therapist had their own version of events and conclusions likely before the patient even sat down.

How frustrating. Rather than figuring out what exactly the client is experiencing, the therapist has some preconceived mold they’re forcing onto the conversation, completely ignoring what the client actually wants from them.

Sadly, this state of miscommunication and poor listening is more common than it first seems, and many people—perhaps like our therapist—will never even know the extent to which their listening techniques are just not working for them and those they’re speaking with. This is a book about a skill that may be simple, but is certainly not easy. Listening is at the heart of proper communication, which itself is at the heart of every meaningful connection you can have with another human being. In other words, learning to listen matters! If even trained therapists (whose true focus should be to listen and absorb and then provide feedback) can’t always hit the mark, then what chance do we stand? Well, as always, learning and gaining the necessary skills is the first step, and that’s what this book provides.

Not being a deep listener doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Gaining self-awareness and understanding the “meta conversation” are skills like any other—meaning they can be learnt and improved upon, whoever you are. In fact, lacking these skills means you’re quite normal, as the instinct we are all born with is to be somewhat self-centered. And yet, some of us are naturally good listeners, but most people need a little deliberate effort to get there. Some of us are only good at listening, and are terrible at telling stories to others or even expressing emotions. However, unlike the way some of us are born taller, shorter, or with black or brown hair, listening is a quality that you have complete control over—starting now.

Being a good listener is not some grand charitable gesture, or a thing you do purely for the sake of other people. When we actually engage with attention and thoughtfulness with another person’s world, everyone benefits, and we only enrich our own perspective. It’s the quintessential win-win—even more than you might imagine. At least, that’s the first important mindset shift you must make to be a better listener.

The True Win-Win

A large piece of the puzzle in creating a presence optimized for listening is the age-old piece of advice, popularized by Dale Carnegie and his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Much of his advice is now derided as common sense, even though the very reason it’s deemed so obvious is because of his book. Perhaps one of his best pieces of advice was simply to get people to talk, or even brag, about themselves. He was quoted, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

It turns out that Carnegie was correct, right down to the biological level. A 2012 study conducted by neuroscientists Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell at Harvard University entitled “Disclosing Information About the Self Is Intrinsically Rewarding” found that our urge to share personal information with others is one of the most fundamental and powerful parts of being human.

Brain images showed that sharing information about ourselves triggers the same sensations in our brains that we experience when we eat food and have sex—two behaviors that we are biologically compelled to do. Thus, it seems we are biologically compelled to share and communicate our thoughts.

One method the researchers used to determine how much the participants valued being able to talk about themselves was to offer a modest financial incentive to anybody who would answer questions about other people instead. Some of the questions involved casual subjects such as hobbies and personal tastes while others covered personality traits, such as intelligence, curiosity, or aggression.

The researchers found that many of the participants were willing to pass up on the money, preferring the rewarding feelings of self-disclosure over financial gain. In fact, the average participant gave up between 17 and 25 percent of their possible earnings just so that they could reveal personal information.

Researchers then used a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI) to observe what parts of the brain were most excited when the subjects were talking about themselves. Again, they found a correlation between self-disclosure and heightened activity in brain regions belonging to the mesolimbic dopamine system—the same region that’s associated with the satisfying feeling we get from food, money, and sex. This increased brain activity even happens when we speak about ourselves without anyone listening to us. Of course, there is a far more powerful effect when our listening skills come into play.