The Art of Good Listening, pt. 1

Research shows listening is the most important communication skill for interpersonal relationships and establishing a career.  Yet in our fast-paced, high-tech world, it can be a challenge to listen well.  In part 1 of this series, Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff identify common obstacles that prevent us from listening well.


Transcript

Dr. Chris:

Welcome to the Art of Relationships, a podcast we do here through the Center for Marriage and Relationships at Biola University. Along with me today is ...

Dr. Tim:

Dr. Tim Muehlhoff. I teach communications classes here at Biola.

Dr. Chris:

I'm Dr. Chris Grace. I teach courses on relationships and psychology. Hey, it is so fun to be here and to start off this day, Tim, and talk a little bit about the art of relationships and the things that really impact people in their relationships at all levels. I think one of the big ones is in the area of listening. It has such a valuable role in every kind of communication, from the day we're born all the way through the day we die, this notion of listening. Tim, get us started on what you think about this.

Dr. Tim:

Chris, you remember the book, I think we probably both read it, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck?

Dr. Chris:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Tim:

On the New York Times Best Seller List, psychologists wrote this very interesting book just taking a look at everyday life. In it he said something I'll never forget. He said, "The number one way to love a person is to," and do you remember what his answer was?

Dr. Chris:

Probably to listen.

Dr. Tim:

Probably listen. Isn't that amazing? The number one way to love a person. I'd say the number two way is give them a sign to [inaudible 00:01:23] book, but number one is that we take the time to listen to each other. You and I both have commented in past podcasts that we feel like listening is becoming a lost skill, that it's becoming increasingly more difficult in today's techno-savvy world, and yet listen to these studies about listening, how much we do. Most of us spend at least fifty percent of our waking time listening to those around us. In the business world, executives and managers report that sixty percent of their time is spent listening.

 

In a study that asked participants to rate which communication skills were most important in both establishing your career and in interpersonal relationships, listening was ranked first in both categories. I think we have a deep appreciation for listening. I think there are gender differences when it comes to listening. I think there's a lot of obstacles when it comes to listening, but boy, if M. Scott Peck is even half right, then we have got to find a way to love each other by listening to each other in ways that each person appreciates.

Dr. Chris:

Tim, it does seem to fall into this category for me where people are asked how good a driver are you and everybody says, "Oh, I'm a great driver." I would imagine most people think of themselves as good listeners. There's different skills and things and categories, but there's got to be at least half of the population is in the lower half.

Dr. Tim:

That's right.

Dr. Chris:

I wonder, how do you know what good listening is and what are some different ways that we do this? Because everybody thinks, "Oh, I can hear, I can listen, and since I was young I've been a good listener."

Dr. Tim:

Isn’t it funny, Chris, how if you were to say to me, "What kind of a golfer are you?" I'd say, "Oh, I'm good." You were to say, "Have you ever had a lesson in golfing?" I'd say, "Well, no." Immediately you'd think, "Oh, boy. You've never had a tennis lesson, you've never had a golf lesson and you think that you're a good golfer or tennis player." I often ask my students, "How many of you have ever taken a class on listening?" Nobody. I ask people at these marriage conference, "How many have ever gone to a listening seminar? How many of you have ever gone to a class on listening?" The answer is zero and yet this is high assessment you talk about because everybody thinks, "Oh, but when it comes to listening I'm really good." There was a famous study done in corporate America where business managers were asked to rate themselves. Nobody in this study gave, as a manager, gave himself or herself poor or very poor rating. Nobody.

Dr. Chris:

I believe it.

Dr. Tim:

Everybody said, "You know what? I'm good." A lot of people said, "I'm a very good listener." Then they went back and talk to their subordinates. They talked to the people who worked for them and said, "Hey, go ahead and rate that manager." Do you know that the majority of people said, "My manager is weak at listening?" This self-assessment thing is, "I'm a great listener."

Dr. Chris:

Do you know right now a study found that thirty percent of the people listening to this podcast are not listening to you right now. That's an ama-

Dr. Tim:

I'm actually encouraged by that number. It's usually higher. I'm feeling good right now.

Dr. Chris:

The podcast is playing, but they are not listening.

Dr. Tim:

One problem you make, I just had this conversation with one of my kids. My child comes home and Noreen and I haven't seen him all day and I want to interact with him. He's immediately looking at his smartphone. As we're talking to him we're saying, "Hey, how was work today?" "Oh, yeah. It was good. It was good." "Did you have class today?" "Yeah, I got chem II." Never not looking at his phone. I said to him, "Hey, listen. It's kind of discouraging, I'll be honest with you, because Mom and I are talking to you and you're not really listening." He said, "I am listening. I heard every single word you said." I said, "Guess what? There's a difference between hearing and listening." Hearing is I can repeat back to you everything you said bullet point-wise, but hearing is this really unique skillset where I feel engaged by how you're choosing to listen to me.

Dr. Chris:

Tim, it brings up a big point that not only with the sense of hearing but also even with our sense of vision. We've got a couple of things that happened, right? You could actually be ... Your brain's aware of seeing something, but you may not really be looking. Another way of saying it, you can look at something and direct your eyes at something and not really see it. Just like I can hear your words, but I'm not really listening. I've got too many other things going on and just divided attention is ... I think that's what you're getting at, right? This notion of divided attention, here's what's interesting. The studies that show human brains have a capacity to do something pretty intriguing and that is do multiple things at the same time, but there is only one track to what goes into memory.

 

If I'm sitting there and listening and thinking two thoughts at the same time, that is I'm trying to listen to you and think something else, only one of those is going to go into memory and be stored. When you're sitting there talking to somebody on a cellphone, the problem is only one thing, that which you're doing with the phone or my conversation, only one of those is going to go into memory. The brain makes this interesting shift between what it's paying attention to, which is why it's so distracting because you know somebody's not really able. They may be hearing you, but the ability to get what they're hearing and putting into memory so that it has an impact is really where the scary part comes in, what we call divided attention.

Dr. Tim:

You would've said to my son, who is looking at, who knows what he's doing, going through Facebook whatever on his phone as we're trying to engage him, you would say to him, what?  You would say ...

Dr. Chris:

Yeah. I would say, "Listen. No doubt you've heard every word, but it's like this." Some people use an example where you are in the shower and you're getting ready to get out and you think to yourself, "Did I wash my hair?" It just happened five seconds ago or whatever, and yet you didn't remember it because you were so engrossed in thinking about something else that you just didn't hold into memory. It's the same thing if you meet somebody. How many of our listeners have ever met somebody for the first time, they introduce you, and within thirty seconds that name is gone. You have no recollection. Did you hear their name? Yes. Was it there? Did you listen and put it into this, or were you paying attention to maybe something they were wearing or something you were going to say or something you were trying to connect with in the meantime? I guess I would've said, and I've oftentimes said this, "I know you probably heard my words, but did they really stay with you? Did you really pay attention and listen?"

Dr. Tim:

The Bible, I think it's fascinating. When I was doing my PhD work at UNC Chapel Hill in addition to studying comm theory, I made a study of the book of Proverbs. Blown away how much the book of Proverbs talks about listening. Probably my favorite verse is when it says, "A person who speaks before listening, it is folly and shame to that person." I mean, I think both of those are interesting. The folly part is exactly what you were just talking about. There's no way I'm picking up on all the information, but the shame part to me I thought was really interesting that the ancient writer would say it is shameful to speak before listening. I'm not giving you the dignity or the respect when I feel like, "I don't even need to listen to you. I can surmise your position in a heartbeat and I can just jump in and co-op the conversations."

Dr. Chris:

It's an amazing proverb, Tim. I've heard you talk about it before and I think there's something deeper there. You know what it reminds me of is this idea or this notion that we have the ability when we really are listening, what happens is there's more than one channel. In other words, I listen not just with my ears. I think this is where people get a little bit confused. I'm listening and paying attention by watching you, seeing what's going on in your reactions, and in the non-verbal. What's happening is there's so many channels that I have to pay attention to. What is shame and folly is when I'm ignoring most of those channels just listening to the words, but missing what's going on in your eyes, what's going on in the tone of your voice, what's going on in your body language, what's going on in the way in which or the context, and that's where we get distracted and miss so much and really where our shame and folly come in. Because we're simply, as the writer said, we're just unable to truly hear or listen in that case.

Dr. Tim:

Yeah. There are so many obstacles to this. It is interesting James would say I want you to be quick to listen. I want you to be slow to anger. I want you to pay attention to that anger part that stops me from listening because I'm upset at what you said. There's another proverb that says, "A wise man overlooks an insult." I love that. Common obstacles that we tend to deal with, I think one of the biggest ones is prejudgment. I love this quote. A Baptist said to an Episcopalian, "I cannot hear you because of what I expect you to say." Think about, we just had a presidential debate happen fairly recently between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and you and I both know that when it comes to debates prejudgment kills everybody. You walk in and you say, "I love candidate A and I'm expecting everything candidate A to make sense and resonate. Candidate B is just wrong. Just flat out wrong." That prejudgment, boy, that really hits us in marriage, parenting, and a lot of different ways.

Dr. Chris:

I think what it is, Tim, what your idea of prejudgment kind of resonates with this notion that we bring with us to any interaction, any conversation a set of expectations and we oftentimes are going to hear what we expect to hear. If I'm interacting with somebody who I believe believes the same thing I believe, it seems like the conversation goes much easier. My son and I, we both love watching the Denver Broncos. We'll sit there, the whole family, we're sitting around watching it. I know what he thinks and he knows what I think. We're going to always ... If somebody comes in and has a different team that they like, they're going to see the game very differently. "Oh, that was a bad hit or that was a foul." Whatever it was. It is so funny how prejudgment can occur based upon what we believe and what we think bringing in. We had to be very careful of those things.

Dr. Tim:

Some of my fondest memories are sitting with my three boys watching the Detroit Lions win the Superbowl. It was just… I will probably treasure that the rest of my life. It was just that magic.

Dr. Chris:

It was an amazing moment. I still don't remember the year because ...

Dr. Tim:

Well, it escapes me as well, the particular year. No, but that's true. I am biased in so many different ways, and I think you become really biased even to your spouse at times, or your roommate. In other words, another person can talk to me about finances and budget, let's say. I listen to that person and think, "Oh, yeah. That's pretty good. Yeah, maybe we should do the budget." When my wife brings up the budget, I've already predetermined that I feel like she's judging me, my lack of financial ability, or I already know her position and I don't agree with it. I'm prejudging her before the words even come out of her mouth.

Dr. Chris:

Tim, what do you do with that? I think you're really hitting a very important point for our listeners and others even in our own relationships and it goes like this. Especially when you're close to somebody, you can make a look or a sigh or even anything that will now bring up a variety of pre-existing thoughts, ideas, emotions, feelings of blame, judgment, or love, care, whatever. What do you do with that when that is... It's almost like you can't have a conversation about money if you've been arguing a lot about money because it's just going to bring up all these other things that we've predetermined and pre-judged. It's really hard to get out of this.

Dr. Tim:

I have a friend of mine who's a family counselor. He suggested this. Tell me what you think about this. He said, when it comes to these issues, you know we've mentioned before on this podcast a million times John Gottman saying sixty-seven percent of all marital conflict is perpetual. It's going to happen. You're going to have this finance conversation a million times, the how to raise the kids a million times. My friend said this, "Change the mode of delivery." If every time you talk about finances, it just breaks down because of prejudgment or bias or whatever. He said, "Change the mode of delivery." Instead of having a face-to-face conversation, have a person write it out for you in a long email.

 

Here's another one he does. Tell me what you think about this. He said to the couples, "Okay, you give your husband's position. You give your wife's position as unbiased as possible, as fairly as possible." If we're in the same rut of "I'm prejudging you every time we have this conversation about finances at Starbucks," then I think my friend would say, "Okay, that's not working. Let's do it email form. Let's do it where we do each other's perspectives." What do you think about that?

Dr. Chris:

I love it. We have found a little bit of success in working with some couples when we have tried to have one of them even email a question or a topic to somebody, for example, who's a very slow, maybe internal processor and it's hard for them to listen. They get overwhelmed a little bit. The person who likes to process externally and talk a lot about this emails a question or two and says, "In the next forty-eight hours, here's an option. Think about this topic and let's stay with this topic." It seems to work. Then they write it out. Then they can almost read it. It does change it. I think it's a great solution for some people to deal with.

Dr. Tim:

I think we'd advocate that generally, Chris, is ... Listen, we get in these ruts of communication where we try one mode and beat it to death. I'm going to raise my voice now when we try to do this. I'm going to pound this point. I think it is wise to have many different tools in your communicational toolbox that you can go to.

Dr. Chris:

No, I like it. There's a lot of good little things to do to help us avoid some of these pitfalls and prejudging. What's another one you got for us?

Dr. Tim:

Another one is that we're too quick to react. One communication theorist says all human beings are reaction machines. I got to tell you, there's certain topics I can be fairly objective about. We could talk about it and it wouldn't bother me, but I've got my hot button topics in the marriage as well as theologically, politically. When Noreen, or a colleague, brings up a certain theological issue, man, I am like got it locked and loaded. I've got my best illustrations. I stopped at Kinko's, I got a colored chart. I'm just ready to go. What's funny about marital communication and roommate communication is the topics that have to be addressed, like, "Hey, we got to clean the apartment, this is crazy," are the ones that tend to provoke the quickest reaction.

 

We've got to find a way of slowing it down enough that I can hear your perspective in a fresh way. Nobody's going to bring up heart issues if ... The first time when you bring it up, I immediately react and I immediately disagree with you and you're facing a lot of emotional heat. See, that's a spiritual process. I need to be prepared to have this conversation before I jump into it.

Dr. Chris:

Yeah. Tim, just to illustrate that point, just recently we spoke to a couple who were dealing with some concerns that the dad had with his older children. Now, they're college-aged kids and older. He was talking about his concern that they took positions on some social issues that he disagreed with. He found himself with his daughters, arguing strenuously with them because he believed taking a wrong position was going to be detrimental to them as they moved up and graduated and went on to get a real job and, let's say, work in full-time business. He was trying to protect them by giving them what was, he thought, a better way of looking at these particular social justice issues. You know what it came down to is the daughters, at the end, would rather have had the father who listened than the one who tried to correct them.

 

It took him a little bit of time to figure out that they don't need the truth that I'm giving them about the way I see truth or the way I see the world. What they wanted was a relationship. They wanted to know that the father understood them, not tried to correct them. Once he figured that out it was really helpful. I think that's what we're getting at is this notion of to listen, we have to have some of these outcomes ready for us. What's our intent? What's our purpose behind it?

Dr. Tim:

Yeah. I think there's two more. One is called ambushing. Have you ever done a formal debate, Chris?

Dr. Chris:

I guess not in front of a large number of people. I mean, if you call what my wife and I do at home sometimes when we debate. No, not really. I don't know.

Dr. Tim:

Listeners may remember that Noreen and I were on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ, now called CRU, for almost thirty years. A long time. I get this phone call one day from the University of Virginia. They want me to come and debate a known atheist. This guy had debated some of the best we had: JP Moreland, William Lane Craig… and for some reason, I think they were just flat out out of money. They wanted to invite me to come in to debate him. I was a theater major, you know that. It's like, "Hey, the great apologists can't convince this guy. Let's bring in the thespian." I was like, "What?" I'm sure my mime classes will come and help."

 

I did. I went. I had never done a formal debate like that. This was in a packed auditorium, Christians, non-Christians, you know. We each gave our opening statements, and then, Chris, it was the weirdest feeling. As you're speaking, to look at another person who hears something and writes it down. I say another thing, he writes it down. Then in the rebuttal times, sure enough he's looking down and saying, "Oh, I was curious when you said this. I thought that was really interesting when you said that." It really made me... of course, it couldn't shut me down. I'm doing a public debate. It just made me so careful of what I said because I'm tying my own noose. I wonder how many times Noreen feels that way.

 

I was on the debate team in college so when Noreen's saying something, and I would never physically write it down. Come on, that'd be crazy. Noreen can tell by looking at me, I'm mentally taking note or ask pseudo-questions. "Hey, just a quick clarification on that. I always do that? Okay, good. Continue, continue." You're like, "Oh, crap. I'm going to get hit in just a minute, verbally." I think that shuts down communication because it's like, "Hey, you're using my words against me. This is not a safe conversation." I think a lot of couples struggle with that, roommates.

Dr. Chris:

I think they do too, Tim. I think that notion of ambush, I think what we do, correct me if I'm wrong, but it feel as if a person can watch another person and know if they're really being listened to or if the other person is almost there, deciding what they are going to say next. They're loading up their arguments and either writing it down. We have the ability to read the non-verbals, right? If we're really watching somebody, I can tell, "Okay, this guy, A, probably doesn't agree with me and, B, I've hit some, maybe, points that are sensitive for him and he is now loading it up, ready to go at the topic." Yeah, I think ambush could be something we have to be very careful of.

Dr. Tim:

That's hard, though. I do feel passionately about certain issues.

Dr. Chris:

Yeah.

Dr. Tim:

Political, theological. When a person goes onto that terrain, I probably do get defensive, or when a person is saying, theologically let's whatever, I am thinking, "Oh, you see? I don't agree with that." It is this internal battle of saying, and we'll talk more about this later, "Am I listening at this moment to evaluate or to understand?" I got to constantly say to myself, "No, this is the understand moment." Later, of course it's okay to disagree with a person, but I'd better seek to understand as much as humanly possible at this moment because later it'll come for debate.

Dr. Chris:

Yeah.

Dr. Tim:

I think the last one is what we simply call message complexity. I do think this is where technology is hurting us a little bit is that my ability to focus on really complex stuff, a long book, a podcast that goes past thirty minutes, a sermon, how dare you go fifty minutes. You know what I mean?

Dr. Chris:

Right.

Dr. Tim:

My ability with message complexity, I tend to do what one writer calls power browsing. We do this on the internet all the time. I mean, I look through a subject and I'm just clicking, click, click, click. I'm not taking time to read everything. That power browsing can get us in trouble.

Dr. Chris:

I think what happens is we face a world that have so much out there. We can do so much with it. Too many times, well, I find myself ... It's even hard to finish a book these days. To start a book, I've got three by the side of my bed. I know I want to read it. I got a couple magazines, I got a couple journal articles, and I got a whole bunch on my computer. What I've done is just thought, "Okay, I'm going to carve out extra time, some weekend, and I'm just going to go through it all." Well, it never happens. I think the idea behind one of the problems with listening is we just get overwhelmed. We hear too much throughout the world, too many messages going on out there.

Dr. Tim:

How do we counteract that? How do we get a reservoir? You're right. You're a big time reader, Chris. One of your favorite books is Crime and Punishment, right?

Dr. Chris:

Yeah. That's right.

Dr. Tim:

Which is how long? That's like what?

Dr. Chris:

It's as long as some of the other ones, but it's still ... It takes a lot of time. You have to concentrate. You have to think about what you're reading. You know, I think there are some people who are really good at listening. They just simply are naturally able to attract even people to them to talk. It gets tiring to listen. I think the point is you have to almost be prepared and ready to listen to somebody. When you're tired, when you're overwhelmed, you're not going to do a good job. For couples who are struggling in this area or roommates, it is probably better to find a time when you just plan on it. You just say, "I'm going to give you my fullest attention for the next forty-five minutes." In doing so, we have this ability to end some major problems at that point by being prepared to listen in a quiet place in which I'm rested, ready to go.

Dr. Tim:

Go back to the payoff, what we already said in the beginning of this podcast. When I'm listening to my wife, it isn't just the hearing part. It isn't just me saying, "Okay, here are the five points you made about our finances. This, this, this, this, this.

Dr. Chris:

Yeah.

Dr. Tim:

The relational part of communication is I need to say, "This is going to fill my wife's affirmation bucket if I put in the hard work of listening. This is going to fill her sails."

Dr. Chris:

And of understanding.

Dr. Tim:

And of understanding.

Dr. Chris:

Yeah.

Dr. Tim:

Sometimes I'm too preoccupied, sometimes I'm too tired, so I do think listening takes a lot of work and a lot of preparation, especially on the hard topics. To know even if we don't resolve it, this is going to fill her sails because I really took the hard time to actually listen to her.

Dr. Chris:

Tim, I think that's really great. The little saying that it's better to be understanding than to be understood.

Dr. Tim:

That's good.

Dr. Chris:

It's a very powerful thing because a lot of people want to be understood. "Wait, wait. I want you to understand. Hold on, do you understand?" For people to seek out the opportunity to be understanding, you know I love the other little phrase like that too. We've talked to our kids about it and even my wife and I, we try and hold this one. It's very similar. It's the idea that it's better to be interested than to be interesting. That's so cool because what it does is it puts on you, "Okay, I want to be interested." Somebody once said that they wanted to do the 80/20 rule and in any conversation they wanted to hold themselves to listening eighty percent of the time and talking only twenty. I think, "That might get a little bit hard to do that," but what a great way to be able to hold yourself to, "I wonder if I've listened more today in a conversation than I've spoke."

 

It's something to think about, but the idea of it's better to be interested, too many people try to be interesting. "Oh, I want to tell him about this," or, "I want them to like me," or, "They need to know this." To really approach it by saying, "You know what? I'm going to try and be interested in what you have to say today and hear that." That could be a cool little thing. Challenging, but interesting.

Dr. Tim:

That reminds me of something called conversational narcissism which is I don't want a conversation. I want a monologue. All I want to do is tell you what I think about this topic. I don't care what you think about politics or theology. I just want to get my position out there, close the door. This is where Christians get themselves in trouble with evangelism sometimes. My one goal is to present the Gospel and I don't care what you think. I think people pick up on that pretty quickly that, "Hey, this is a monologue. You want to say this is a conversation, but this is really just a monologue." I think as academics, we have to be really careful of this that sometimes, man, I just love to get on a roll and just ... Even if I'm wrong. My kids will say, "That was a dad fact, man. That thing was only true in your universe." It doesn't stop me at all.

Dr. Chris:

Dad fact. That's awesome. Yeah, we love to hear ourselves talk and you're right. Tim, listen. You have a lot of interesting thoughts on this as a communications expert, so I'd love to continue this conversation because it feels like we're barely getting started, so let's do this. Why don't we continue this conversation on listening?

Dr. Tim:

Sounds great.

Dr. Chris:

Let's do it. We're going to do that. We'll have another direct podcast here on this topic because there's so much to uncover about the art of listening and what it means. Thanks for joining us today on this Art of Relationships podcast. I'm Chris Grace.

Dr. Tim:

I'm Tim Muehlhoff.

Dr. Chris:

Take care and come to our website cmr.biola.edu for more tips and events and podcasts and blogs and things going on. You'll get some information even on listening. We'll talk to you next time.


The Art of Relationships Podcast

The Art of Relationships podcast, hosted by Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, is centered on helping you build healthy relationships and marriages. In this podcast, Chris (director of Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and professor of psychology at Biola University) and Tim (professor of communication at Biola University and author of I Beg to Differ), weigh in on how to navigate the complexities of relationships in our culture with biblical wisdom and scholarly research. Listen to get practical insights on relationships, dating and marriage that can be applied to all relationships  — family, friends, co-workers and others.

 

Comments



Subscribe To Our Newsletter

 

Contact

Biola University
13800 Biola Ave. La Mirada, CA 90639
1-562-903-6000
© Biola University, Inc. All Rights Reserved.