Is Anybody Listening?

This post is a little longer than usual, so hear me out (pun intended, groaning anticipated).

Listening is fundamental to our personal health and wellbeing, integral to our relational human experience, and necessary for a just and functioning society. We’re wired to learn and connect by listening, which is how, throughout our evolution, we transmitted knowledge, connected and created communities.

What’s the problem?

To begin with, listening in today’s world is plain hard. It places demands on us in a world in which our attention is already fragmented. Filtering out noise and distractions is draining. We have unconscious filters, too, such as gender, culture, language, values and intentions, all of which tell us where to place our attention in any given communication.

More often than not, we’re not really listening at all, except to ourselves. Our own thoughts, judgments and opinions get in the way of hearing others and our understanding of what’s being said. This is evident in any heated argument. Both speakers are loudly stating their positions, but who’s listening?

Yet listening, and being heard, is how we connect, how we know that we matter, how we solve problems, and how we heal.

I’m a lawyer. Get to the point.

This is of particular concern (or should be) in the legal profession. The roots of successful problem solving are in listening. Most lawyers have been taught to problem solve, while only a few were taught to actively listen as part of problem solving. In a recent survey of nearly 24,000 practicing lawyers nationwide, only 6.6% valued listening attentively as an foundational lawyering skill for success over time.  

This is unfortunate, as research also shows that clients seek supportive human connection with their lawyers. Lawyers are trained to focus on facts, not the human, so we often miss the nuances and the opportunity for connection that comes with real problem solving. Both the clients and the lawyers are missing out. (These principals apply to all in-firm relationships, as well.)

James Nelson, former Chief Judge of the LA Municipal Court said, “Most people would rather be heard, than win.” This is because being heard promotes healing, and the legal profession is, at its core, a healing profession. Movements such as restorative justice, integrative law and holistic lawyering are efforts to reinvigorate and reintegrate the practice of law with the reality of the human experience.

OK, point made. What now?

Listening well is not as simple as hearing another person’s words bounce off of our eardrums. Listening engages all of our senses. It demands effort and attention.

In an experiment done each year in my law school class, students are trained to listen by going through some in-class exercises, then asked to apply their classroom experience in the real world. The results are always (to my mind) illuminating. The students report that in situations in which they would previously have used marginal or selective listening, or jumped to conclusions, using attentive listening diffused conflict, reversed assumptions, changed  their opinions, judgments or previously held notions about the topic or speaker, improved relationships, and often, they noted that they learned something new.

Powerful.

Now imagine bringing this type of listening into all of our relationships, personal and professional. If we’re going to thrive in our practices and our lives, listening may be a good place to begin.

Listening expert Julian Treasure offers this helpful approach: RASA—Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, Ask. Rasa, he says, means essence in Sanskrit, and isn’t getting to the essence of a conversation the purpose of listening?

We’re at a time in our history when the importance of authentic listening cannot be overstated. We have an opportunity actualize equality by listening and learning, and thereby connecting, as we once did and as we’re still wired to do. Listening galvanizes collaboration.

Wait… So, how am I thriving again?

Listening offers massive personal benefits, too. We’ve all experienced the pain and discomfort of not being heard at some point in our lives (yes, all of us), and it sucked. Listening increases connection, raises our “feel good” hormone levels (dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin), and lowers the blood pressure of both the speaker and the listener.

And perhaps noticing when we’re not listening is as important as listening.

We don’t have to be at the forefront of a movement to benefit from listening. We can begin at home, on our calls, in our zoom meetings, the next time that we meet a client, engage in current events, or even listen to a podcast.

Thanks for listening.

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” Dalai Lama