Have you ever had a conversation with someone and walked away saying to yourself: “I might as well have been talking to the wall?” Are you clear that there are times people have conversations with you and probably walk away saying to themselves: “I might as well have been talking to the wall?” If you’re honest, I’m confident that the answer to both questions is a resounding “yes.”

Why is this? Typically we approach a conversation with another person as if they were a blank canvas upon which we can write words that they will receive and understand exactly as we intend. When they don’t “get” our message exactly as we intend, we get irritated and think they must not be listening, don’t understand, are playing games or being hostile.

But are we really speaking to a blank canvas? Of course not. The other person is living in his or her internal conversation. The one in their head that they refer to mostly as “self talk.” Before you even open your mouth, he is already listening, to himself. Why? Because people are always listening to their own internal conversation.

So the question is not whether we are listening when someone speaks to us. It’s a question of how we are listening. We always have an internal conversation going on as we listen to another person and that conversation filters everything we hear. Virtually everyone listens in one or more of a particular set of ways. Some of these internal filtering conversations are: get to the point, what am I going to say next, do I agree with you or not?, is what you are saying right?, whose going to win in this conversation?, find the flaw, why are you attacking me?, are you approving of me?, and a few others.

Do people decide in advance how they are going to listen? Of course not. All of these ways of listening are automatic and unconscious. Our conversation is what it is. It has a mind of its own. We listen how we listen, we react to the things we react to without much forethought and it’s just that way. The fact is, you were born into a paradigm where you were trained to listen in these ways, just like everyone else, without any thought on your part whatsoever.

People are not aware of the power of their listening. We live the life of the victim, as if someone “out there” is out to get us. Let’s be clear. There is no such thing as a victim. We shape our world with how we listen. If we listen attack, guess how everything shows up for us? Like an attack! If we listen agree/disagree, then that’s what’s available to us in any discussion. You get no new information, no new ideas, and no ability for anyone to make a difference with you. All you get to do is agree or disagree.

Here’s the worst part of all: If you really analyze all of these ways of listening, you will see that your attention is on yourself and your only concern is your own self-interests. You are concerned with protecting yourself because each of these ways of listening is fundamentally adversarial in nature. You’re over there; I’m over here. You show up as a threat to me and I have to protect myself from you.

Why can’t we all get along? In most interactions, we have person X with his attention on himself and concerned with his own self-interests and person Y with her attention on herself and concerned with protecting herself. When they talk to each other, do they have a meaningful, intimate conversation? No way. Most conversations resemble two television sets tuned to different channels broadcasting at each other.

This is the work of the ego. The ego has only one concern: its survival. For the ego, you are the center of the universe, everyone else is separate from you and, what’s worse, they are all enemies.

This is why we rarely experience true communication between people. Each person’s primary concern is his or her own self-interest and desire to make sure the other person hears what he or she has to say. People place very little or no attention on making sure they understand the other person. This is the root cause of most miscommunication and upsets between spouses, parents and children, team members, bosses and employees.

Given how critical our listening is to our success in every aspect of our lives, it is amazing to me that we don’t all have a profound understanding of the phenomenon of listening. Listening consists of only two components. The first component is: Who do you have your attention on? The second component is: What’s your internal conversation? That’s it. All that “stuff” about body language, facial expression, eye contact, and the like flows directly from those two components. Understand them and you will unshackle yourself and acquire the freedom to be effective not only as a leader but in all your relationships.

Once you become aware of how you listen, which means becoming conscious of where you have your attention and your internal dialog when others are speaking to you, you can choose not to listen that way any longer. Implementing this choice will take focus, commitment and staying conscious.

Since you have your attention on yourself when you listen unconsciously, you need to put your attention on the other person to generate a more constructive way of listening. That part is simple but critical in importance. While it’s simple, it is not easy. Why? Because of that ego again. Remember, it’s only concerned with its survival and tells you that everyone “out there” is the enemy. It does tell you that, which is why it’s totally natural, in the world of your ego, to go through life with your attention on yourself.

In addition, listen with compassion, for what the other person is committed to, for the goodness in people, how can everyone be included and everybody win.

What are the advantages of listening in one or more of these ways? You get real communication, understanding, intimacy, trust and an appreciation of the other person’s position. That creates satisfaction, happiness, a sense of well being, self-confidence, joy, aliveness and ultimately rich, meaningful, quality relationships. In a business setting, the payoff is productivity, creativity, teamwork, enthusiasm, no turnover, success and of course money, results and accomplishment. You get all of this by switching the way you listen.

Author's Bio: 

Scott Hunter, author, speaker and industry leader, helps people GET UNSTUCK.
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