Two Kinds of Listening

Last week I was able to sit down with my closest group of friends. I found myself looking around the room and thinking, “I love being with these people.” Reflecting back, I realized what it is about this group of friends that makes me feel so good. They not only know me, but they want to know me better. They make that known to me by giving the gift of listening well. It’s a rare gift to have people who listen well.

You instinctively feel it when you experience it. What makes you feel truly listened to? You know about cues like non-verbals and asking questions that indicate you have been listening, but there are also deeper qualities.

This past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I call “me-centered listening” and “other-centered listening.”

ME-CENTERED LISTENING is when you are listening for what’s important to you. This is appropriate when receiving instructions, getting trained, attending a sermon, listening to the radio, or even reading a book. You are actively seeking out what you need to move forward, to grow, or to enjoy what stands out to you. This style of listening comes very naturally. It can be easy, like when you are enjoying the sounds of nature on a hike. Or, it can be more difficult, like when you listen to your boss’s evaluation of your work.

Photo by  Mika  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mika on Unsplash

OTHER-CENTERED LISTENING takes a dramatic shift in perspective from what I described above, because it tunes into what is significant to the speaker. It imagines what the words might mean, not to you, but to them. It actively seeks to put you in the other person’s shoes and to imagine what the situation they are describing is like for them, from their perspective. This is the type of listening you need to use when you want to help others grow, develop, or just feel loved.

When you use this type of listening, others feel known. Being known is transformative.

Want to learn how to listen better?

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Imagine a typical conversation at your favorite coffee shop. You chit-chat about the weather, traffic, the latest news, and what your week has been like. You’re probably fine using me-centered listening during most of this. But then, your friend’s voice slows, and his shoulders sag as he says, “. . . then my mom called. She said Dad just went in for some tests to find out why he’s been dizzy.”

Notice these two types of responses.

ME-CENTERED LISTENING RESPONSES:

  • Oh, I remember the day my mom called and told me my dad was in the hospital . . .

  • I forget, where do your parents live?

  • What did they learn? I’ve had some dizziness lately.

OTHER-CENTERED LISTENING RESPONSES:

  • What was that like for you?

  • I imagine that’s added to your stress this week.

  • How are you handling the waiting?

Can you see the difference between the two types of listening? Can you imagine the difference it makes to be heard with other-centered listening?

Photo by  Wenni Zhou  on  Unsplash

Photo by Wenni Zhou on Unsplash

Listening for what’s significant to the other person takes effort, and for most of us, it doesn’t come naturally. It’s a skill, however, that you can develop. One way to start is to learn to become sensitive to "bubbles." These are little indicators that something more is below the surface. Bubbles can be non-verbal, like a furrowed brow or suddenly slumping shoulders, or verbal, like a word that sounds especially meaningful or seems to invite you to ask about it. You need to let these bubbles be alarm bells in your mind that help you switch gears from me-centered listening to other-centered listening.

Other-centered listening is powerful in the lives of those who receive it. It’s a rarely given gift and extremely valuing to the hearer. That’s what makes its impact profound.

What is something you can do to develop this skill more in your own life? Take advantage of the free15-minute video training below!