Cover of 'X Life Lessons to Live By' book – a collaboration between the author and Chat GPT, offering extensive self-help guidance and tools for mental well-being, specially curated for Mental Health Month, May 2023.

Chapter 4: The Art of Listening

Chapter 4: The Art of Listening

"Communication is a two-way street" is a cliche worth examining a little when trying to improve the skill of listening. Much like roads, there are many different avenues and destinations to get to when talking or "communicating." However, communication is also like a car; it works best when one person is driving the car and another is sitting quietly in the passenger seat, actively listening. When communication has multiple people trying to drive the same car to different directions and taking different routes to get there, then something in the car is broken. We sometimes call this broken-down car of communication a "Communication Breakdown." Others may call it everyday normal family life.

I have come to the belief that every individual person tends to have a way of talking and communicating that is unique to themselves. I have covered communication styles and talking in prior writings, but I feel like it would also be useful to give a brief synopsis here. Communication in English is different from communicating in other languages, especially the Romance languages. In French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, roughly 80% of the time, the spoken word will be in the present tense. The English language's ability to be a time machine and move from the past, present, and future in consecutive sentences while communicating is both exhausting to listen to and one of the things that make the English language fantastic.

I have an old book on writing from the 1940s that groups different types of communication into categories. The following is Chat GPT's version of a similar table.

Category Level Examples
Vulgate Basic Simple words and phrases used for everyday communication
Slang Informal language used among certain groups or in specific contexts
Familiar Conversational Everyday language used in casual settings
Colloquial Informal language used within a particular region or community
Idiomatic Phrases and expressions that have a figurative meaning beyond the literal definition
Casual Neutral Everyday language that is not too formal or too informal
Informative Language used to provide information or explain something
Formal Standard Grammatically correct language used in professional or academic settings
Literary Elevated language used in literature, poetry, or speeches
Technical Jargon Language specific to a particular field or industry
Scientific Technical language used in scientific or medical fields
Legal Technical language used in legal documents or proceedings

It is impossible to research and monitor every conversation of every English speaker on the planet to figure out how many conversations fit into each category. But based on population statistics, you can guess that there are fewer doctors, scientists, lawyers, and academics with the letters "PhD" next to their name in the world, which would make formal and technical categories a rarity and not the norm of the spoken English language.

Logically, there are far more people who spend more hours in formal, casual, and vulgar settings. Ideally, English speakers should try to improve their formal, informative, and neutral styles of communication since that form of communication is usually best for most business and personal settings. If you imagine speaking English in London, where class differences have more of a tradition, the ideal English style of communication would be one that is comfortable in a pub during a football match and one that could engage intellectually with an Oxford or Cambridge graduate about their general interests but may not be as informed on the topic as they are.

The English language sometimes works like the trope; "Townie vs Students" with neither side really listening to each other. This trope is a real dynamic among certain classes in America and elsewhere. It can also seriously disrupt communication due to the fact that one side may or may not be listening to the other. For example, an educated post-graduate student may not listen to what a townie is saying because they are thinking of something super specific and esoteric while also plotting how best to score fictional points of credit on the townie while playing an intellectual game that doesn't really exist except in the heads of people with super advanced degrees that like to have some fun with this form of communication. This form of communication is not necessarily that great and is more similar to an old vintage car that goes nowhere else except old car shows to be shown off. Personally, I find this Oxford style of communication found in PBS Masterpiece Theater incredibly annoying even though at times it has its moments of entertainment and hilarity. In occasional small doses, it could be beneficial and helpful to improving one's manners and style of communication.

I started this chapter on listening with a brief discussion on communication because they go hand in hand. A good communicator is also a good listener. To be a good listener is also to be a good communicator. These are skills that every person could improve on no matter how successful they are or at what point in life they may be.

Chat GPT on Active Listenting

Active listening is a crucial skill in personal and professional relationships. It involves fully focusing on the speaker, understanding their message, and responding appropriately. It's not just hearing what someone says, but also paying attention to non-verbal cues, such as body language and tone of voice, to get a better understanding of the message being conveyed. By becoming a better listener, you can enhance your relationships and achieve greater success in both personal and professional endeavors.

In personal relationships, active listening helps build trust and understanding between partners, friends, and family members. It allows individuals to communicate their feelings and needs effectively and helps to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts. Active listening in personal relationships involves giving your full attention, asking clarifying questions, and acknowledging the speaker's feelings.

In professional relationships, active listening is critical for effective communication, building relationships with colleagues and clients, and fostering teamwork. It helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals. Active listening in professional relationships involves being attentive, taking notes, summarizing key points, and asking relevant questions.

To become a better listener, start by focusing on the speaker and eliminating distractions. Put away your phone and other devices, and make eye contact with the speaker. Take notes if necessary, and ask clarifying questions to ensure that you understand the message being conveyed. Try to empathize with the speaker and acknowledge their feelings.

Real-life examples of individuals who have improved their relationships through active listening are numerous. For instance, a couple struggling to communicate may benefit from learning to listen actively to one another's needs and concerns. A manager who actively listens to their team's input and feedback can improve morale and foster a culture of collaboration. Even in everyday interactions, such as talking to a cashier or a customer service representative, active listening can help to build positive relationships and resolve issues more effectively.

In conclusion, active listening is a crucial skill that can benefit both personal and professional relationships. By focusing on the speaker, understanding their message, and responding appropriately, individuals can build trust, prevent conflicts, and achieve greater success in their endeavors. With practice and patience, anyone can become a better listener and reap the benefits of this valuable skill.

Chat GPT Tips on how to improve Listening Skills

Personal Listening Professional Listening
Focus on the speaker Be attentive and present
Minimize distractions Eliminate or minimize distractions
Maintain eye contact Use appropriate body language to show engagement
Ask clarifying questions Take notes to stay engaged and focused
Repeat or summarize the speaker's message Summarize key points to ensure understanding
Acknowledge the speaker's feelings Avoid interrupting and listen without judgment
Practice empathy Practice active listening during meetings, presentations, and conversations
Give feedback Ask relevant and thought-provoking questions

I also decided to ask Chat GPT for 20 questions to help show that you have been actively listening to someone. I've been asked some of these before by people who have all the degrees to show for it, so I can attest that some of these questions work and actually help people talk about their feelings in a more productive and clear way.

Theoretically, you could memorize most of these questions and then ask one or two of them at the end of a hypothetical business meeting, which might help leave a good impression and build your reputation in a positive way.

  1. Can you tell me more about that?
  2. How did that make you feel?
  3. What led you to think that?
  4. Can you give me an example of what you mean?
  5. What do you think the underlying issue is here?
  6. What can we do to resolve this situation?
  7. Have you thought about any alternatives?
  8. How can I support you in this?
  9. What are your goals in this situation?
  10. What are some possible outcomes we should consider?
  11. What steps can we take to prevent this from happening again?
  12. How can we work together to find a solution?
  13. How do you see this playing out in the future?
  14. What concerns do you have about this?
  15. How can we best move forward from here?
  16. What have you learned from this experience?
  17. How would you like me to respond to what you've shared?
  18. Is there anything else you want to add?
  19. Can you help me understand more about your perspective?
  20. What do you think the next steps should be?

The Confessional

There may not be a better example of active listening than the sacrament of confession. Confession is a religious form of communication where the parishioner confesses their sins to a priest in a small enclosed space. The priest offers guidance and absolution. Even though this practice is religious, it is also very similar to a patient in therapy talking in private to a therapist or psychiatrist, or a client talking to a lawyer bound by attorney-client privilege. This is a private form of communication between two people, each with clearly defined separate roles.

The deeply personal nature of confession means that impartial listening without interjection, interruption, or in-the-moment judgment is imperative. It takes special training to learn to listen and control emotions in such a way when someone else is sharing the most intimate details about their life. The average person does not have the listening or communication skills to handle the psychological stress that is the confession booth.

Confidentiality is also a critical component of the confessional and improving the skill of active listening. Deeply personal conversations are for the ears of a priest, spouse, therapist, lawyer, and trusted confidants. The nature of confidentiality is supremely important when it comes to the sacrament of confession. Confidential conversations build trust between two people, which is essential.

The non-judgmental nature of a priest hearing confession is also essential. The role of the priest is to listen and give guidance, not to interject, interrupt, be judgmental, or give unwanted and unhelpful opinions. Listening and being non-judgmental is the job of the priest in the confession booth.

I am writing about this because we can learn from this common experience to help us in our daily lives between friends and colleagues. Sometimes people may share information with us that is uncomfortable for us to listen to and information we did not ask for. When situations such as those arise, we can pretend to be like a priest hearing a confession. We can listen, be non-judgmental in our thoughts, reserve our opinions for ourselves on a later date, forgive the person who made a mistake, not gossip about it to other people, and forget it ever happened.

Instead of making a snap emotional decision, which is a characteristic of the cancel culture age in which we live, we can instead see these situations as opportunities for us to improve our communication and listening skills. Even if we fail at this sometimes, attempting to be a better active listener and keeping things confidential will make our mental health better in the long term.

The Little Mermaid

Perhaps no fairy tale better expresses the importance of active listening in communication than Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” In his version, the little mermaid is fascinated with humans and their culture and collects things tossed from ships. Eventually, she saves a young prince by dragging him to shore when his ship crashes. Sadly, she cannot stay with the prince and has to return to her home under the sea.

Her grandmother informs her that mermaids live for 300 years while humans have an immortal soul but only live for a short while on land. The little mermaid’s fascination with humans eventually leads her to a witch who informs her that she could grow legs and live as a human if she is kissed by the prince before he is married to someone else. If she fails to be kissed before he is married, then she will turn to foam and die. The witch warns her that she should be happy being a mermaid instead of chasing love by becoming human, but the little mermaid does not listen to either her grandmother or the witch and makes a bargain. The price she has to pay to become human is having her tongue cut out, losing her voice and ability to speak.

Happily, the little mermaid takes the potion and becomes human. Every step she takes feels like a thousand knives digging into her foot, and even though she cannot speak, she wants her chance at finding true love. She ends up dancing and having fun with the prince for a little while, but he ends up being set up with another woman. Although he tells the little mermaid that his true love is a maiden who saved him from a shipwreck a while ago, she has lost her ability to speak and cannot tell him that it was her who saved him.

The moment the prince sees the woman who is to marry him, he falls in love with her, believing that she is the one who saved him from the shipwreck. The little mermaid witnesses the wedding and dances her last night alive away on the boat. She is given one last chance to save herself when her mermaid sisters give her a dagger and tell her that if she kills the prince, she will get her voice back and be turned back into a mermaid, where she could live the rest of her 300 years at sea. Seeing that the prince was truly in love with his new bride, she instead decides to drop the dagger, and she is turned to foam.

The gods that be noticed her sacrifice and grant her an immortal soul to live forever in heaven.

The life lessons we can learn from this fairy tale are almost self-explanatory, but I figured I would list some anyway.

  • Nonverbal communication expresses a lot about who we are and what our intentions are. If the prince had been able to pick up on more of the little mermaid's nonverbal communication, then she might have found her one true love.
  • Relationships have a way of taking away our voice and our ability to communicate effectively. Our individual voice helps us communicate our wants and needs to others, and without it, we can become just another character in the lives of others. In both personal and professional settings, it can be easy for us to repress our inner voice and not say what is on our mind. Even though the little mermaid is a metaphor, we can easily begin to feel as if our tongue is cut out when we fail to speak what is on our minds.
  • Sometimes a love story is not two happy people going in the same direction and arriving happily at the destination. Sometimes love stories are more complicated. It's okay to give up on a relationship with someone you have deep feelings for if you see that they have stronger feelings for someone else and will be happier with them. Sometimes real life gives us these kinds of stories, and that is okay too. Happy endings in fairy tales are a creation of the fictional world of Hollywood, and they're not real life or even the real version of a fairy tale.
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