truth listening requires S.L.O.W. listening

How do things change when we listen to understand, not to respond?

"To speak is craft; to listen is art." Dee Hock

For the next few weeks, School of Thought will be focused on various aspects and perspectives on building community.

And in the words of Bruce Mau,

"Every collaborator who enters our orbit brings with him or her a world more strange and complex than any we could ever hope to imagine. By listening to the details and the subtlety of their needs, desires, or ambitions, we fold their world onto our own. Neither party will ever be the same."

If we are lucky enough, a single conversation might be the one to change the way we think, feel and behave. But no doubt, a combination of such conversations, when we are really listening, has the power to transform us into community.”

today, we dig into listening.

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Now more than ever, we need to listen to those around us. Everyone has a voice. And we all crave to be heard.

But we’re not listening.

And no one is listening to us.

Listening has the potential to transform our relationships and our working lives, improve our self-knowledge, and increase our creativity and happiness. Listening to one another creates critical connection.

We are a country in healing. To restore, we need some truth listening1.

Truth Listening is a combination of concepts. It involves the patient, generous and humble listening possible when listeners choose to free themselves, even temporarily, of their prejudices, biases, assumptions, and opinions about the matter being discussed. Truth listening allows listeners to accept what tellers tell as having credibility—even if the tale is unfamiliar, disconnected to the listener, or rubs against the listeners’ own positions.

Truth listening is also about intention. It is listening to learn and to act.

Truth listening can occur anywhere, from the world stage—global diplomacy, international high stakes discourse—to speak across the aisle. It’s equally effective on smaller stages between doctor and patient, teacher and student, parent and child, between spouses, or even between friends.

Truth listening builds a thread between the story teller and listener that gives voice to the tale. When we listen without defensiveness but with curiosity, when we bring an air of openness and acceptance to conversations rather than an attachment to our agenda and a need to change the speaker’s mind, we can create an atmosphere that promotes connection, co-creation… and healing. 

For speakers, being listened to in this way can be just as transformative. Stories within each of us are both fragile and powerful. It is so rare that we come to be able to express them without fear of dismissal, attack, or disbelief. When we can, we receive the gift of being able to hear and better understand each other and ourselves.

School of Thought of the Week

In a world of digital distraction and information overload, listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing. The cacophony of modern life, the choir inside and out, stops us from good listening.

Think about how rare good listening is.2 “You’re not trying to filter what [people] are saying,” explains Ralina Joseph (@ralinajoseph), professor of communication and director of the UW Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity. “You’re not trying to fix them. You’re not trying to solve anything for them.”

Listening can be difficult for a few reasons. Perhaps the hardest is that we think three to four times faster than people speak.3 This, mixed with attention spans generally can make it hard to maintain focus on listening.

Plus, it is impossible to close our ears. We have no “earlids.” And sounds are everywhere. Noise in general interferes with listening. There are many kinds of noise, but research highlights four types: physical noise, psychological noise, physiological noise, and semantic noise. Noise outside, noise in one’s mind, noise in one’s body or confusion in language.

On top of this, people seek first to be understood, and then to understand. In doing so, we may ignore the other person completely, pretend that we’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation, or focus on only the words, but miss the meaning.

So much of learning in any setting depends on our ability to listen. The fact that we

  • think faster than we speak

  • have to filter so many different noises to focus, and

  • are predisposed to want to be understood

…makes the act of listening a challenge.

And while we spend up to a decade learning to read and more than that reading to learn, little emphasis is placed on speaking and almost no attention on listening. With their central importance and almost everything we do, why don’t we spend even a part of our teaching and learning efforts on listening skills?

“We are raising generations of children who’ve been brought up in “acoustically lousy” schools, who’ve learned not to listen, who’ve learned just to shout or to switch off. And I think that’s absolutely tragic. If we can reverse that, if we can teach children and ourselves how to listen, then we’d be creating a very different kind of world,” says Julian Treasure, a listening expert, trainer and author.

The typical student is graduated into a society where the chances are high that she will have to listen about three times as much as she reads. We suggest we need to privilege listening while also reminding ourselves that we are human.

The big idea

While it may take some effort, truth listening is skill that can be learned, improved and expanded. Great listeners share a few important qualities.

1. They recognize their filters

We listen through filters of our culture, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, and intentions. While filters are widely recognized as a necessary part of how we process information, if we don’t recognize them, they can have unseen impact. While listening is the intention, we are more frequently evaluating, probing, preparing to advise, or interpret. To truth listen, we need to name our filters.

  1. Privilege filter: Those in places of privilege for any reason see the world through that lens. gender, race, position, age, and even more invisible areas (e.g., ‘That is not happening. I’ve never heard that. They’re misinterpreting...’).

  2. Confirmation filter: Common among highly trained, intelligent people. (e.g., ‘I know that. I knew that. I know that’s not...’).

  3. Assessment filter: We have been taught to make judgements (e.g., ‘I agree. I don’t agree. That’s not true. They don’t know what they’re talking about...’).

  4. Utility filter: (e.g., how can I use it? What good is it to me?’)

  5. Time-saver closure: (e.g., ‘get to the point. What’s the bottom line?).

  6. In addition, there’s resignation: (e.g., ‘Been there, done that... It will never work’).

  7. And looking good is universal: (E.g., ‘This could make me look good/bad....I should have an intelligent response....’)

“Communication would be vastly improved if everyone who wrote and spoke were content to be understood without needing to be admired." Dee Hock

Recognizing and lowering these filters improves listening.

2. They have a higher question to contribution ratio

More questions. Fewer broad comments. At the start of the pandemic, there was an evergreen tweet that made the rounds.

Silence is indeed a part of listening, but truth listeners don’t have to be completely quiet.4 One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned as a researcher interested in stories, is that everyone is deeply interesting. We just need to ask the right questions. If we are truly curious with no agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing or correcting, amazing conversations happen.

Good questions act as evidence that you’re listening and show that you’re interested in building on what you heard. And beyond mere perceptions, those questions might help you learn more from what the speaker is saying.

The questions you ask matter.

3. They listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to respond

Truth listeners focus on understanding what’s being said, rather than thinking of what they want to say next.

And while lot of listening has to do with how you respond — one perspective is that response might be thought of as the degree to which you facilitate the clear expression of another person’s thoughts and, in the process, crystallize your own.

Truth listening does not demand the storyteller tell the story we want to hear. It centers on the listener serving as vessel for the story shared.

Intention changes your listening perspective.

4. They are PRESENT and make people feel heard

Dr. Adrienne Boissy (@boissyad), a neurologist and chief experience officer at Cleveland Clinic, says one of the most powerful things you can do for people is to ask about insights and feelings, reflect what you hear back to them, and then do something about it.

She calls this concept “empathy operationalized.”

Her advice: If the message is emotional, the reflection is a statement of empathy. If the message is information, then the listener states facts or data. When this happens, people feel heard and understood. A relationship begins.

Being heard doesn’t just form connection, it actually improves the quality of communication. Research has found that when people feel heard, they behave differently. A study out of UMass found that when students didn’t show they were listening—an interested posture and eye contact—their professor’s lecture was uneventful, spoken from notes with a more monotone voice. However, when the students displayed interested behavior, the professor was lively, gesturing more and speaking at an increased verbal rate.

The way you demonstrate listening matters.

5. They follow up on what matters

Research indicates that when people who don’t know each other well ask each other certain questions, they feel more connected than if they spent time together accomplishing a task. They are the same kinds of questions listed in the widely circulated article “36 Questions That Lead to Love” and are similar to the conversation starters suggested by the Family Dinner Project, which encourages device-free and listening-focused meals.

It feels really good when someone remembers something you said and brings it up with you later. Good (truth) listeners make a point to circle back around to follow up on key points or important issues.

Good listeners remember you.

Making Big Ideas Usable

To put it simply, we listen so we can understand what the speaker is trying to accomplish. As we muddle our way through the pandemic, lockdowns and (for some of us) working from home, listening can be a valuable tool. Truth listening skills can be learned and improved, and there are plenty of opportunities every day to practice. We have curated some ideas from some of the best sources around.

School of Thought has curated collective wisdom from professional listeners. We offer a method of SLOW listening.

1. S-Soak it in.

SLOW listening starts with simply soaking in what you hear. Part of being a good (truth) listener is being able to be fully present and aware. Julian Treasure (@juliantreasure), who trains professional listeners, encourages, “Enjoy paying attention to sound and try hard to unlock the hidden choir of the sound around us.”

To Soak it in, Marie-Claire Dean (@drmcdean), designer manager at Atlasssian, suggests a simple daily exercise:

1. Sit comfortably 2. Close your eyes (it will be easier if you withdraw the other senses) 3. Listen to the sounds that are furthest away from you. 4.Listen to the sounds that are closest to you. 5. Now listen to the sounds that are somewhere in between.

Dean says you should be able to sit comfortably for 20 minutes without:

Fidgeting - Your mind wandering & losing concentration - Hearing the sound of your own voice inside your head - Having a conversation with yourself - Waiting for this exercise to end - Labelling all of the sounds individually - Effort

The exercise might be difficult at first, but the more you do it, the easier it’ll get. If we can all be silent for three minutes a day, we can reset our ears and recalibrate so that we can hear the quiet again.

2. L-Learn and appreciate, with intention.

The second piece of SLOW listening is Learning. To practice comprehending what you hear, Harvey Deutschendorf (@theeiguy) an author, speaker and researcher on emotional intelligence, suggests acting like there going to be a test on what you understood. When we focus deeply on listening to others, we truly have the opportunity to get behind their eyeballs and learn, grow and evolve into our highest and best from their sharing.

A prompt: Listen ‘for’ something – something beyond the superficial level or even the words themselves. Why is that important? In hearing what’s behind the words, what’s ‘unsaid’, you find that people are willing to give up their objections and consider something new.

This might be a bit odd or challenging in individual conversations, but if you’re in a large gathering, this could help you retain a lot of more of what’s said. This frame of mind will help you pay better attention and think about questions to ask.

And here are some ways to aid in listening when you are remote.

3. O-Orient and ground in the teller.

Third, is Orient. Orienting grounds the listener in the story of the teller. Acts of orienting include summarizing what you’ve heard, which leads to fusing connections. One reason listening is so difficult is the gap between how fast we think and how fast people talk. To make up for that gap, as you’re listening, review and summarize the speaker's main points. Then, when they are finished, you can orient by restating the points and asking 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...?"

Clarify and paraphrase to better process information and make people feel heard—and to force yourself to pay more attention to what they mean. Questions here dig deep.

4. W-Wonder and be, asking questions.

Finally, engage in Wonder. Challenge yourself to one day of listening, suggests Robin Sharma (@robinsharma), an expert trainer on listening and author of more than fifteen books. Hear the teller. Wonder and think with them.

"Today, just for a day, make the decision to listen masterfully," Sharma writes. "Don’t interrupt. Don’t rehearse your answer while the other person is speaking. And don’t dare check your email or search for text messages while another human being is sharing their words. Just listen. Just hear. Just be there for that person."

In a series of experiments, interacting with an empathetic, nonjudgmental, attentive listener made people less anxious and defensive. They felt less pressure to avoid contradictions in their thinking, which encouraged them to explore their opinions more deeply, recognize more nuances in them, and share them more openly.

Many communicators try to make themselves look smart. Great listeners are more interested in making their audiences feel smart.

An extra: Artful Listening

A beautiful way to practice listening: partner with someone, hear their story for 15 minutes, then recreate the story through a collage, drawing or other means. Sometimes, to express listening and connection, it’s easier to use a drawing, poem or music. This activity has been described as “listening with pure intention.”


We would love to hear from you: 
What is an idea, big or small, that you have now that you didn’t have at the start of this article?

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🌟 Scrolling...
Feeling Overstimulated? You're Not Alone | Architectural Digest 
How we lie to ourselves about history. | The New Yorker
Science Says You Need to Plan Some Things to Look Forward To | VICE
Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome | Harvard Business Review
What Makes a Good Leader and Who Gets to be One? NY Times

🎧 listening

A playlist curated for you
A Next Big Idea Club podcast featuring Kate Murphy, author of You’re Not Listening (and why it matters)

📱 Sharing with the group chat…. 
@_whitneypolk shared this week, "Our lives are held in the stories we tell. Writing down our stories, sharing them, helps us to gain perspective on our lives. Stories help us gain awareness and insight into who we are so that we can make change."

Sharing is caring

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Truth listening is a term coined by Dr. Sharon Ravitch. More here:


It’s common for doctors to interrupt their patients within 11 seconds, even though patients may need 29 seconds to describe their symptoms. And among managers who had been  rated as the worst listeners by their employees, 94 percent of them evaluated themselves as good or very good listeners. In one poll, one-third of women said their pets were better listeners than their partners.


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.


In a study on the differences between great and average listeners, researchers found that people who ask questions that promote insight and discovery are perceived as better listeners.