The Art of Listening Well

dreamstime_m_12381001It’s no great secret that lawyers suck at listening.  What passes for listening, for most of us, is simply being quiet while waiting for our turn to talk.  And what frequently passes for conversation (particularly in mediation) is nothing more than occasionally intersecting monologues.

We cut each other off in conversation.  We act like we know it all.  We treat our clients as if our time is more important than theirs. And when we’re not at work we do the same thing at home. Instead of listening when a friend or family member is talking,  we find ourselves thinking about what we are going to say in response.  Or we jump to a conclusion about what they are trying to say before they are finished—thinking we  know the solution to their problem, and we interrupt to show off our expertise.

Sound familiar?  As lawyers, we prefer talking to listening.  It’s an occupational hazard.

We look like we’re listening, but we frequently are doing something else. Real listening requires presence. It requires a willingness to be open and receptive. It requires a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and to accept ambiguity. But for starters, it requires attention.

And that’s a problem in this digital world.

Microsoft recently conducted a study where they discovered that a goldfish actually has a longer attention span than a human being. The study found that over the last 10 years the human attention span has actually decreased.  Currently, scientists estimate it to be right around eight seconds—which is one second less than a goldfish.  As a result, after a conversation we only remember about 50% of what we’ve heard.

What’s the cause of this attention deficit?  According to Microsoft, it’s the amount of time we spend sitting in front of computer screens.  Scientists tell us that technology actually changes the structure and function of our brain.  We are getting better at multitasking—taking in multiple channels of information and processing them quickly.  But we’re much worse at going deep and paying attention.

This means if we want to be fully present in a conversation, the first thing we have to do is shut down our computer and turn off our smartphone.

However, lawyers don’t need the distraction of computer screens to be caught up in their own thoughts.  Lawyers are the consummate problem solvers.  We are trained to figure things out in a hurry.  We also like to appear as if we’re the smartest person in the room.  So when someone is talking, we have this constant inner dialogue going where we’re interpreting or judging what they are saying and we are mentally rehearsing what we are going to say in response.

Another thing that makes it tough for lawyers to listen well is that there is frequently an agenda to our conversations.  Often we’re either trying to convince the other person of something, or we’re trying to change the way they think or get their approval.  Sometimes the agenda is to get their attention so we can feel attended to.  When we have an agenda, it’s impossible to be fully present and to create the sense of openness that is necessary for real and intimate connection.

The point is this—without good listening we’re just going through the motions.  We pretend to be engaged with each other when we’re not.  We pretend to care, but we are lost in trying to make a point. And when we do that, we deny ourselves real intimacy and the opportunity to connect to another human being.

To practice generous listening start paying attention to where your thoughts go when you’re in a conversation.  Ask yourself, is there an agenda?  Do I want this person to change? Do I want their approval?  Do I want to be right? Do I want to look good or impress?

Then notice what you do to control the experience.  Do you get distracted and retreat into your own thoughts? Do you try to steer the conversation?  Do you plan a response?  Do you insert yourself when the other person is speaking?

It’s rare for us to simply put down our life, so to speak, and simply be present with another person—to stop trying to prove a point, to figure something out, or to judge what they are saying.  But there is no question that the more we can practice doing just that, the richer our lives will become.


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