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Art of Listening


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“If you want your spouse to listen and pay strict attention to every word you say, talk in your sleep” - Anonymous

I am not sure who quote this but it isn’t restricted to spouses any more.

Most conversations in life remind me of a joke in academic circles.

A junior professor meets a senior professor. For an hour, the senior professor drones on about his remarkable achievements — particularly his latest, groundbreaking, field-defining book — while the junior scholar listens like his tenure depends on it (because it does).
The senior scholar eventually comes out of his self-centered trance and says: “But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do YOU think of my latest book?”

All of us are, at some point or the other, are guilty of applying the “smile and nod” technique to humor someone else’s speech

The reason attributed by Stephen R. Covey is that - “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”

Well, in my opinion, intent to reply is just one of the intent while listening.

Some of the other intents I had –

Intent of getting a gist – I used this a lot during exams time. 

Sit with the most intelligent kid of the class, boost his ego – “Topic X is very tough, it must be difficult for you as well” and the next moment you will hear the complete chapter with finest of explanations. But you just need a summary to get passing marks and as soon as that mark reaches I stopped listening. Besides I have to get summaries for ten more topics like X

This intent is not restricted to student life but generally as well, we are more interested in summary or application rather than features, backend etc.

Intent to rebut – In my office cab, there was a lady who sing praises of particular political party. After few days, I started listening her talks partially and only gave my opinion where she was wrong statistically. Thus, my motive became not to hear her point of view but only to rebut to show flaws in her perception

Intent to get their point of viewHaving such intent is positive sign of your listening skills as you are trying to understand the logic and point of view. But by repeatedly doing so, one may form judgmental bias – this person is having same views about the problem so let’s assume them on our own


Listening has become one of the top skills to acquire in order to become successful.

I wasn’t expecting it to be under the list as I know Data Science is tough, creating visionary presentations is tough.
Becoming an exceptional orator is tough – it needs lot of practice, empathy is probably toughest of them as you have to understand another creature (sometimes even an animal) to master it

But why listening? We have two ears which automatically catches words, and then brain will interpret it accordingly.
What was the tough part?

Why listening takes work?

Changing motivation to speak – When we speak with other people, we want to look intelligent, funny or smart. We want to gain respect and seek approval from others. Our motivation no longer lies in sharing our thoughts, ideas or feelings. Ulterior motives look for ulterior responses (after all input defines output) and whenever we heard something unexpected or challenging we cut their talks

Hijacking of the points – While listening, we hijack the conversation by relating it to our experiences rather than hearing out the concept (That reminds me of a time when I…) We have an answer ready before we fully understand the person. Within the first few minutes of conversation, we understand the problem, attitude of speaker, solution and how we have to respond. Well this can work in speed reading but not in listening

Skipping the content – We all have done this, usually on telephonic conversation, where we listen to starting few words, hum in between while driving, eating, watching news and then intermittently we comment or ask a question to show our attention and in the end, we get summary of everything. In short, this is the listening version of TL;DR (Too Long Don’t Read)

Listening is faster than speaking - we think three to four times faster than people speak. That means we could listen at a rate of up to 450 words per minute, but the average person speaks only 125–175 words per minute, making it easy to become impatient or let your mind wander

Become complacent – We often mistake listening as easy because it looks passive and instinctive and thus


As Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it, “it is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows.”

The dying skills of listening is hampering our learning as well as we claim pretense of knowledge, we put on our blinders, close our ears, and shut off incoming educational signals from outside sources. We march on pretending to know what we think we know, oblivious to glaring facts that contradict our ironclad beliefs

Some strategies to help you develop this skill

Express genuine interest - Don’t just wait until it’s your turn to speak. Ask intermittent questions, use icebreakers to break the awkward silences. Clarify things, raise concerns, express solidarity. If you are familiar with the topic share your experience but maybe with a permission. Don’t go over with your emotions but lack of expressions should also be avoided

There was a famous anecdote

The famous psychologist Siegmund Freud went for a walk in the garden with his wife and son. When they turned to leave, they found the child missing.

His wife was nervous and impatiently asked him to look for the boy. Freud calmed her down and assured that they would find him.

"Find him without searching?" his wife asked in an annoyed tone.

Freud replied in the affirmative and asked her to recall if she had mentioned a place where he should not go.

The wife remembered that she had forbidden the boy to go near the fountain. Freud, immediately, took her there. And the child was found sitting near the fountain looking admiringly at the cascading water!

What active listening!

Let others express their viewpoints first – This will help you understand the purpose of the speaker and at the same time you won’t be correlating it to your views (which would have been the case if you go first)
Maybe that’s why we are given two ears and one mouth to listen twice as much as we speak

Follow up - I used to have a teacher who loved to say, “The word listen has the same letters as the word silent.” Silence is indeed a part of listening, but good listeners don’t have to be completely quiet. They should follow up on what matters.
Maybe next time don’t take word-for-word notes instead try to understand the perspective. Try to clarify the things. Don’t be like us. What we did?

Well I had a quants professor who started his introductory class with an exercise -

You are driving a bus. At the first stop five people get on the bus. At the next stop three people get off the bus and two people get on.

(Usually at this point some of us started solving a math equation)

At the next stop ten people get on the bus and six people got off.
What was the bus driver’s shoe size?

Most of us said, “How am I supposed to know?”

There were couple of smart chaps who used calculus to solve the equation and came up with the shoe size

(The answer is: You are the bus driver. What is your shoe size?)

The ratio between speaking and listening is 1:3, so as you’re listening, review and summarize the speaker’s main points. Then, when they are finished, you can restate the points and ask the speaker if you’ve understood the message by saying things like, “What I hear you saying is…” or “When you say that, do you mean…?”

While listening, don’t do any of these four sins - Evaluate, probe, advice, interpret

Look the Person in the Eye and make them feel heard


Try just one daily conversation be like this


Thanks for listening :)



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