How to Save the World

It is my contention that better listening skills can save the world.

Do you think you are a good listener?

In my brief experience on this earth, I’ve found that many people do not really listen when having a conversation. You hear, certainly. The vibrations produced from the other half of the conversation hit your eardrums and signal the auditory system to kick into gear. This allows you to know when your partner in conversation is speaking or not speaking. 1 or 0. Binary code. At this point you may as well be a computer.

But hearing is vastly different than listening. And you are so much more than a computer.

Think about this honestly: when is the last time when you had a conversation and you actively listened to the other person? This requires you to first hear the sounds coming at you, we’ve established that we’re all experts at this. You then take that auditory stimulus, in the form of words, and direct your brain to interpret what the words mean.

Additionally, from that sound wave your conversation partner has put forth, you detect tonal differences.  Now you can direct your brain to both understand the meaning of the words, and interpret the tone associated with that meaning.

Next, we can even move away from the ears and bring some other systems into play. Using our eyes (if we’re talking in person), we can absorb the visual stimulus and our brain can interpret further. i.e. is our counterpart slumped over, nervously shaking, rubbing his or her face, bleary eyed, smiling?

Now comes the hardest part. Silence. You need to actually be silent for just a few seconds. You need to allow your brain time to process all of the information it now has available: tone, meaning, and visual stimuli such as body language to name a few. Just a couple of seconds while you actively listen to what the person has said and interpret it.

Following that is perhaps an even more difficult aspect, getting clarification. You have heard, you have seen, you have interpreted and you have taken time to process it all. Now the information is clear in your mind. But is it correct? Instead of assuming it is, you could restate what you have interpreted from the information presented and/or ask if you have heard the other person correctly.

When was the last time you went through those steps in a conversation? Have you ever?

Enter your favorite part, your turn to talk! This is usually where you are ready to offer advice: a referral, an action plan, something that has worked for you in a similar situation. You may have been waiting from the second the person opened his or her mouth to offer a solution. However, in most scenarios, it is much less effective to offer advice or try to fix the problem rather than allowing the person to come to a conclusion on their own. This brings us to motivational interviewing and the socratic method.

An oversimplification, perhaps, but lumping the socratic method with motivational interviewing and starting with a conversation where a person comes to you with a problem:

You listen to that problem. You interpret all of the data you have available using your senses and your brain. You ask clarification questions, if necessary. You don’t interrupt. Then comes a very difficult skill that is rarely mastered: guiding this person to a resolution of their problem. This is accomplished mostly by asking questions of the person but not in an interrogatory manner. However, I don’t think you have to be a trained counselor to get better at this skill. In fact, if you ask certain questions and guide the conversation gently, the person may discover on their own that a counseling session may be effective for them.

Another general scenario is one where someone is talking to you, but they don’t have a problem they wish to discuss. Maybe they are happy or excited about something. Believe it or not, this can be difficult to handle as well. You interpret that they are not sad or upset and you immediately dismiss that feeling as something that doesn’t need to be addressed. Then they will go from a big high, where they were excited enough to come to you and tell you about an accomplishment, to a deep low, where you have diminished their feelings to a “congratulations” and a quick transition to whatever topic was on your mind before. But the same principles as before apply:

A person comes to you and is happy about a recent accomplishment. You interpret all the data you have available using your senses and your brain. You ask clarification questions, if necessary. You don’t interrupt. You establish that this person genuinely seems happy. Now you ask them about their accomplishment, you celebrate with them, you let them have time to bask in a victory.

On the flip side: are there times where you may need to quickly respond to someone without going through this scenario? Of course. If you’re guiding someone who took over for a sick pilot and is flying a plane through a storm and you have ten seconds to tell them which buttons to press and how to direct the plane, you can’t use the socratic method. There are certainly other examples as well.

But the point remains, if you listen to the person, ask questions and think about what they’re telling you, both of you will have a deeper understanding of the issue at hand.

Although this may seem like a time-intensive process, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. The better you are, the more efficient you’ll become. The more efficient you are, the more people you can truly listen to using this same method. The more people you listen to, the more people feel understood and less alone. The more people who feel understood and less alone, the more happiness will be present in the world.

And thus, you’ve done your part to save the world.

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