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May252015

GENUINE LISTENING IN A GEN-C AGE

 

Milleninals, who reached adulthood around the year 2000, have been described as "trophy kids with helicopter parents" who are digital natives, resist organized religion, delay the rites of passage into adulthood (for example, by living longer with their parents), and are socially and politically liberal enough to fuel the huge cultural shift in the U.S. toward approval of same-sex marriage.

Now come the Gen-C'ers, many of whom are also Milennials, who relish creation, connection, curation, and community, and for whom YouTube is the cultural Holy Grail.  Gen C folks make most of their buying decisions based on peer approval, which they solicit and receive mainly online.  They value most what is intriguing and share-worthy; a favorite operating mode is:  Like, +1, and retweet.  They sleep with their smart phones, and 65% update their profile daily.

Listening, for both these groups, is mainly about what's fed to their heads through their ear buds.  There's little time for face-to-face contact, because their smart phone provides at least 10 gigs to fill each month with digital novelty, inspiration, and mash-ups of photos, videos, and memes.  For Gen C-ers, even Yoga, which was originally about spiritual development, enhancing mindfulness, and improving life-balance, has become Hot Yoga, or, if you're really intense, Yoga Sculpt.  These folks live life as an X-game

Benefits and Costs

The benefits of this kind of living include varied and exciting experiences, large networks of 'friends,' and a slate of activities guaranteed to eliminate boredom.  What are the costs?  Most importantly, you can shut out what Henry B. Freeman beautifully describes in Unlacing the Heart:  Connecting with What Really Matters (Brevard, N.C., John's Press, 2015).  What really matters, Henry writes, is

          the gift of knowing that one of our deepest longings is to find a safe place to take down our walls, be                     present with another human being and share our life story.  http://www.unlacingtheheart.com/

As he explains, this kind of contact happens when people are mindful, present to each other, genuinely curious, and humble, and when they authentically engage the best practices of genuine listening.

It's exciting, and even fulfilling--for awhile--to live life as an X-game.  And inevitably, time intervenes. Profound goals replace superficial ones.  Long-term relationships demand sustained attention.  Bodies slow, and events of real intimacy remind us of the value of personal contact.

Three Parts of Genuine Listening

 Those who live life as an X-game can profit by

  • remembering how everybody's brain is hard-wired for personal contact
  • engaging two of their most life-enhancing dispositions, and
  • practicing important best listening practices.

Brain  For six decades, brain scientists have described the two ways that human brains empower us to orient to everything around us.  The simplistic and inaccurate left brain=logic and right brain=emotion view has been updated, but there are still two.  One is linear, analytical, objective, and emphasizes similarities and generalizations.  Some neurobiologists call this "impersonal" thinking, and it's a powerful way to grasp the natural world, solve well-defined problems, and pursue science and math.

The other way our brain works is to use metaphor and narrative, grasp what's immediate and subjective, understand people and things in context and holistically, and notice uniqueness.  Some call this "personal" thinking, and it empowers genuine listening and intimate human contact.  https://www.ted.com/talks/iain_mcgilchrist_the_divided_brain

So the first step toward genuine listening is to energize the personal parts of your brain, which means focusing on immediacy, presence, metaphor, wholeness, and uniqueness.  Work to be fully present to the other, and ask yourself what's his or her distinctive take on your topic.  The best practices below will help.

 

Mind  The second step is to cultivate two attitudes or dispositions that promote genuine listening, humility and curiosity.

Humility means holding your own beliefs, opinions, and cultural identifiers lightly, rather than with white-knuckles.  This does not mean that you have to give up your commitment to alternative energy when listening to someone who supports off-shore drilling.  Understanding is different from agreement.

Humility just means being well-grounded, anchored in the clear understanding that you are not the center of the universe  Each of us plays more or less important roles in the situations we inhabit, depending on what's going on and who else is around.  When my kids are in the room, I have some authority because I'm the dad, but in a group of singers, I'm just a person who an barely carry a tune.  And even when I'm dad, I don't know even close to everything about my children's lives.  I need to stay well-grounded in my own limitations. Humility helps good listening happen.

Curiosity, the inclination to investigate explore, and ask, "I wonder what's up with that?" is widely-recognized as a common trait of the most successful business people, researchers, artists, and politicians.  When you enter a conversation with a curious mind-set, you're positioned not only to learn, but also to motivate the other person to engage with you.

Genuine curiosity also has other payoffs.  For one thing it displaces fear.  It also displaces defensiveness. When you're noticing something unfamiliar and wondering "What prompted that?" or "What's happening here?" you're less likely to invest energy in protecting your own ego or bruising someone else's.  Another benefit of genuinely curious questions is that they turn the other person into an expert, and most people enjoy being put there.

It's much easier to listen well when you're appropriately humble and curious.

Body--Best Practices  Common sense reminds you a lot about best listening practices--the importance of stopping other activities to focus on the other person; the value, in many cultures, of direct eye contact; the usefulness of encouraging nods and sounds; the effectiveness of paraphrasing; the value of supportive probes like, "Say more about that" and "For example?"

You can also engage the personal parts of your brain by "running with the other person's metaphor."  We all use metaphors in our daily talk--"I feel squashed," "Let's try an end-run," "I can't keep all the balls in the air," "The cliques in this office remind me of high school."  Prime yourself to pick up on your conversation partner's metaphors and encourage her to develop one or more of them.

Try responses like, "Squashed like a bug on the sidewalk or like somebody stopped you from speaking?"  "Is there somebody who can help you juggle everything?"  "Who are the jocks and who are the geeks?"  Metaphors are markers of engaged, holistic (thinking + feeling) responses, and when you pursue them supportively, you can often connect with some of the other person's deeper meanings and feelings.  Listen better by runninng with the other person's metaphors.

Uniqueness

The goal is to hear what's distinctive about the other person's views--to contact uniqueness.  This is the greatest power of the personal parts of your brain.  When you "get" how his or her take is unlike anybody else's, the one-of-a-kind understanding that it always is, you've understood the other person fully.

There's much more to say about the brain, mind, and best practices of genuine listening, especially when life's being lived as an X-game.  I talk about them in Chapters 3, 6, and 9 of U&ME: Communicating in Moments that Matter.


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