Learning to listen

Do you really know how to listen?
18 August 2020

Interview with 

Richard Mullender, Listening Institute


a close up of someone with their hand to their ear, trying to listen


As adults, the first component of understanding someone is actually paying attention to what they’re saying. But how does one listen correctly? Just memorise every word someone is saying? Well, Katie Haylorwas joined in the studio by Richard Mullender, from the aptly named Listening Institute, and has spent years as a London detective and hostage negotiator. He spoke with Katie about how to listen...

Richard - The reason I know this is because often when I start a course or I go to a conference, the first question I ask them is to teach me to listen. And all you get is this massive silence. No one really knows what it is to listen. Most of us have been taught the active listening skills, which is to nod your head, which keeps the person talking, to summarise, or to ask open questions. But if you think about it, nodding your head is nodding your head, it doesn't help your listening. Asking an open question is talking and summarising back what you've been told, again is talking. So most of us don't really know how to listen.

Katie - How do you go about listening - well say, to me, how do you go about listening well?

Richard - Well first and foremost you have to know what your outcome is. So when I was speaking to Adam and he phoned me up, I pretty quickly picked up that his outcome was to work out whether or not I'd be any good on this radio show. And so therefore he's listening for all sorts of signals. For me, if I'm in a conflict situation, a crisis situation, I'm listening for the facts. So I want to know what the facts are. I listen for the emotions, tone of voice. I'm listening for motivators, values, and beliefs. What do they stand for? Currency, which is what makes you tick? What makes you work? Why do we enjoy your work? And then finally the benefits, where do you see the benefits? So you need to be listening for all of those things. And that's really difficult in one person, because at the same time you're listening for all of those things you've also got to respond to the other person. And that's why in the hostage negotiation world, we work in teams of four and only one person talks. And everybody listens.

Katie - That's an awful lot of information to be processing as you're having a conversation.

Richard - Yeah. I mean, if you're having a conversation, a general conversation, so you're in a bar or something like that, we don't listen at all. What we do is we hear, and that's fine, and that's just general chit chat. If you're in a crisis situation, or if you're trying to work out the questions you're being asked, et cetera like that, then you need to really think about why is this person asking that question? And how can you interpret it? I mean, the reality is we have to come down to four things. I have to listen to you, I have to interpret what you're saying to me, I then have to check my assumptions. And then if I can do that, I understand you. And if I understand you, then I can persuade you. So listen, interpret, understand, persuade.

Katie - Oh, okay. Because I was going to ask you once you've got the measure of me, and it sounds like you have, how do you go about applying it? But I think you've kind of just said how you'd apply it, right?

Richard - Yeah. I mean, I've got to work you out, or whoever the person is you're talking to, you've got to work them out. You've got to get inside their heads. So often we're told 'you need to understand people' and that's great, but how do you do it? I mean, that's the worry isn't it? People keep telling me to do stuff like - I don't know if you've told your children, if you've got children, you've told your children to concentrate. Try and teach them to concentrate, it's really difficult. And yet we say this, we use this language all the time. So for us, it's about clarity and I'm going to listen really carefully to what you tell me. I'm thinking, that's what you mean by it. And then I'm going to test that out by saying, I get the impression, this is what you mean. And then you'll either tell me I'm right or I'm wrong. And either way I'll find out, which then gives me understanding. And the moment I understand you, then of course I can persuade you. The difficulty we have is that we believe that we can walk in someone else's shoes and we can't. Every single person is unique. And I have to listen to you to work you out. Just because we have the same situation, yeah, we can have similar emotions and go through similar feelings, but the impact on different people is different. And therefore we have to work everyone out. And you do that by listening, you can never ever do it by talking to someone.

Katie - It sounds like you can glean quite a lot of information about a person by listening to them. What have you picked up about me and Adam from the way we speak?

Richard - The way you speak? I wouldn't be listening to the way you speak, I'd be listening for the words you use. I mean, it's the words that give people away. People say 7% of communication is in the word spoken and 38% is in the tone of voice and 55% is in body language. Well, you know, that's got to not be true, because I can't see you and you can't see me. So you've got no idea about my body language and yet we're having a perfectly good conversation. So the key for everything is the words. And what you need to understand is that you have no control of what comes out of your mouth unless you're under pressure. The moment you come under pressure, then you think if I want to find out more about you then I've just got to get you relaxed. If I get you relaxed, you'll talk, because your subconscious takes over.

Katie - What about in a high stakes situation or say in a mild conflict, say you, I dunno, have a disagreement with a family member or something. Do you have any general tips on how we can just listen better?

Richard - Yeah. Well I think right from the outset, there's two things. I mean, there's always two situations. The first one is, do they want to talk to you or do you want to talk to them? If you want to talk to them, then you've got to give them a reason why they should answer the question. You know, the reason I'm asking this question is because I feel that there's something going on and I'm not sure what is, and I'm worried about it. And, you know, I don't want to break up our relationship or whatever that is. You know, you can kind of make up a whole introductory sentence, but you've got to tell them why they should be talking to you. If they come to you to talk to you then and they stop talking and you can say, well look, you came to me, what do you want to tell me? And then you have to listen. But the real key is take your time. Listen carefully. If someone is angry, by the way, if you've got someone who's angry, you need to raise your energy. Don't lower your energy. I think the big mistake people go is 'I'm going to stay calm until you calm down'. That's not going to happen. And they'll get more angry. If you've got someone who is shouting at you, then you have to raise your energy. It doesn't mean you shout back. It doesn't mean you get angry. You just say 'look, I really want to help you. And I really want to do the best for you. But at the moment I can't because you're shouting at me.' You'd be surprised, they calm down very quickly.


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