Keys To Stress Mastery: Are You A Good Listener? (Part 4)

by Doc Orman, M.D.

This week, in order to help you advance your stress mastery skills, I’ll be continuing our discussion of seven key skills for exceptional listening that I began discussing with you last week (see links to prior posts in this six-part series below):

KEY #1:  Listening Is Not A Passive Activity!

KEY #2:  Listen For Unspoken Fears/Concerns/Moods/Aspirations

KEY #3:  Good Listening Requires Great Wisdom

KEY #4:  Listen To Others With Respect And Validation 

Today, I want to discuss a very important listening problem that afflicts many more people than you might imagine.

KEY #5:  Listen Without Thinking About How You Are Going To Respond

listening skillsIt’s very hard to be a good listener—at any level—if you’re not fully attending to what others are saying and feeling (and also what they are not saying).  Much of the time when people are speaking to us, our heads become automatically flooded with our own personal thoughts and agendas, such as:

  • Thinking how we’re going to respond.
  • Thinking negative thoughts about the other person.
  • Thinking how we might think or feel in a similar situation.

But to listen well, you must put your own internal thoughts aside and “be with” the other person. You’ve got to fully attend to their words and inner emotions. You’ve got to actively work to “put yourself in their shoes” as you listen to them speak.  And you’ve got to keep your mind open to discover the value or merit in whatever the other person says, especially if you are inclined to think negatively about what they are saying.

None of these things can be easily accomplished when you’re listening to your own inner thoughts instead of focusing on the other person.  You may not always be able to stop such thoughts from occurring, but you can learn to put them aside for the moment, and focus your attention elsewhere.

Doctor Unleashed

Here’s an example of how powerful this key principle is.  Several years ago, I co-lead a weekend communication seminar for a group of experienced physicians at a well-known Midwest hospital.  One exercise that my training partner and I designed involved having seminar participants pair up with a partner.  One person in each twosome was asked to play the role of a patient with a problem, and the other person was to assume the familiar role of physician/helper. The only catch was the helper wasn’t allowed to say or do anything!  They were completely removed from any responsibility for helping to fix the problem or to respond when the speaker was done. Their job was simply to just sit there and listen, while the “patient” first described his/her complaints and then continued to talk as they attempted to work out a solution for themselves on their own, with no help or input from the other person. Now if you know anything about doctors, you know that just sitting there and listening to a problem—without thinking of what we might need to do to help solve it—is very, very unusual for us.

Well, there was one physician in the audience who wasn’t too happy about being forced to attend the seminar. His hospital department head had required him and all other members of his department to attend, so he only showed up because he felt pressured to do so.  During this one simple exercise, however, he experienced a major breakthrough in his ability as a listener.

The exercise was structured so that each person had two full minutes to speak uninterruptedly as the “patient” and two full minutes to listen as the physician/helper. At the end of the exercise, when everyone was sharing their insights and experiences, this particular physician raised his hand and announced to the group “What I learned from this exercise was that I ALMOST NEVER LISTEN TO MY PATIENTS!  I’m mostly paying attention to the thoughts in my own head, and I never fully appreciated this until today!”

This seasoned, experienced physician (a surgeon) was so excited about what he just noticed about himself that every time we had a 15-20 minute break in the seminar, he would rush upstairs (the course was held at the hospital) to practice listening to his patients. He would sit on their bed and ask a few questions and then listen intently to whatever they had to say. He was so “juiced” by this new found power, which he possessed all along, that he was consistently 10-15 minutes late for the start of the next session.

Listening without thinking is also a requirement for listening to people respectfully and keeping an open mind to the merit or value they bring to the interaction. You can’t really listen to others respectfully when you attention is mostly on yourself. This also includes not prejudging or pre-evaluating the value of what others are going to say.

Many times, due to previous experiences, we begin listening to someone with the preconceived notion that we’re not going to hear anything valuable or worthwhile.  We close down our listening and merely pretend to be paying respectful attention.

The point here is that we all tend to lose contact and intimacy when we close our listening down. Whether it’s because we’re focused on our own thoughts and agendas, or whether we have prejudged a lack of value to the interaction, in order to be a good listener, you must learn to put these common tendencies aside and focus your awareness on what the other person is saying and otherwise communicating.

NOTE: This six-part series of consecutive blog posts contains excerpts from a newsletter article I wrote and published back in January, 1995 titled: “7 Keys To Listening That Will Win You Friends, Improve Your Marriage, Boost Your Profits, And Make People Follow You Anywhere!”

For a full list of all of my Kindle books about stress, click on this link:

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