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4 Steps to Great Listening

January 1, 2013 | by Rabbi Benjamin Rapaport

The secret to amazing relationships.

We all want amazing relationships. Every week a bestseller comes out with the latest recipe for how to have them. Fortunately, the Zohar,1 the primary source of Kabbalah, taught long ago the true secret of connection: great listening.

The Zohar reveals that listening and unity are intimately related. Let’s consider the faculty of hearing. Every word that is spoken is heard one by one. It is only in the mind of the listener that the words come together and combine into a meaningful whole. This physical reality reflects a spiritual truth: It is through really listening that discrete, separate entities come together and form a greater whole. How we hear determines the quality of our relationships.

To experience deep connection we need to develop our listening abilities. Here are four fantastic tips to help us hear better and take our relationships to new levels:

1) Listen with your eyes. Look at the other person when they are speaking. 93% of our communication lies beyond the actual words that are said, according to a study by UCLA. 38% is related to voice quality, things like tone and inflection, and 55% is related to non-verbal communication, the physiology we talk with. This means that the way we physically communicate is nearly eight times more impactful than the actual words that are said (at 7%).

We’ve all had the experience of talking with someone and they are looking past us or checking their phone. We may have also experienced how wonderful it feels when the person we are with is really listening to us, and really sees us.

Remember the golden rule of Hillel2: Do not do unto others what we would not want done unto us. Next time someone is speaking to us, let us tell them with our eyes that what they have to say matters to us, and even more importantly, that they matter to us.

2) Ask open questions. An open question is the type of question that invites the other person to tell their story, to respond with something more than just a yes or a no. These questions often begin with words like “what” or “how” and create a space for an answer that will take longer to listen to. They communicate: I am interested in knowing you more deeply, in connecting with you.

Closed questions such as, “Did you like it?” Or, “Was your meeting good?” limit the feedback. They close us in to a short response. Often this all the questioner wants and we respond in kind.

When we give others the room necessary to share their story it encourages them to go further with us, to experience a more profound connection in the relationship. It is remarkable how powerful this can be in building better rapport.

3) Validate: Even when we disagree with something that has been said, we can express this in a way that is respectful of the other person and their intelligence. Proverbs teaches (9:8): “Do not rebuke a mocker lest he hate you. Reprove a wise man and he will love you.” The holy Shelah (1565-1630), a great kabbalist, explains that the above verse is not referring to two different people, but rather to the same person. He explains: “When you criticize someone do not relate to them as a ridiculer. If you do they will hate you. Rather, relate to them as to a wise person and they will love you.” Expressing our criticism in a way that validates the value of the other person makes all the difference.

4) Empathic listening. Try to get behind the eyeballs of the other and strive to understand what they are thinking and feeling. Ask yourself, what brought them to their position? Who is this person? Where are they from? What have they experienced in life?

So often, we think we know what others mean without really having the big picture. Hillel expressed this with the dictum: Don’t judge your friend until you have reached his place.3 So many misunderstandings can be avoided when we sincerely reflect on where others are coming from and consider more fully their point of view.

An easy way to remember these four tips is to listen with LOVE:

L – Look (at the person you are speaking with)
O – Open (ask open questions)
V – Validate (the person you are speaking with)
E – Empathic (try to see from their eyes)

Four Obstacles to Listening

In order to really raise the bar in our relationships, we also need to understand the four foes of listening and how to overcome them. They are:

  1. Too busy to listen. Life is busier than ever and we are multitasking like never before. There are emails to answer, meetings to make, and deadlines to reach. As a result, anything that does not seem so urgent takes a backseat. Sadly, listening in a meaningful way to the people in our lives usually falls into that category. The problem with this pattern is that not listening usually translates into not understanding. Over time this ends up costing far more at work and at home, in terms of both time and often money, than if we had invested the time up front in better listening. So, be a smart investor and invest in better listening up front. The dividends will surpass your expectations.

  2. Jumping to conclusions. It is natural to jump to conclusions about what others mean or want without really understanding. This can often send us, with the best of intentions, in the wrong direction. As a general rule, it is helpful to ask for clarification whenever there is room for confusion. This small step can take us far in improving our interpersonal effectiveness.

  3. Not aware. We often undervalue the difference that we are capable of making with good listening. When we consider our own experience of what it feels like to be heard and seen, or not heard and seen, we can appreciate how meaningful our hearing and seeing can be to others. This awareness awakens us to uplift others with the way we are present as they speak.

  4. Rehearsing our lines. How often have we rehearsed in our minds what we were going to say next as the other person was speaking? Maimonides taught that it is impossible to hold two thoughts in our mind simultaneously. As a result, when we are rehearsing our lines we are going to miss partly or completely what the other person is saying. The realization that our response will be far more to the point when we understand what has been said, helps us to tune in better. A notable benefit of doing this is that others are much more interested in what we have to say, once they feel that they have been heard.

Great listening lies at the heart of connection. When we hear more fully, with our eyes, ears, and words, this communicates how much we care and opens a channel for deep bonding to occur. Make a commitment to listen with LOVE and enjoy better relationships today.

  1. Zohar, I, 18b, on the verse “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
  2. Shabbos, 31a
  3. Pirkei Avos, Ch. 2, Mishna 5

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