Most people think they are good listeners.
I know I certainly do. It is one of the things I pride myself on the most, along with my extensive Harry Potter knowledge and that time I played ZODIACAL for 113 points in Scrabble.
Since I was 14, my role in all my friend groups has been listener. I heard about all the secret crushes, pregnancy scares and awkward kisses before anyone else, and became known for dishing out really good advice that no one ever listened to, but that I was assured they all “really, really valued.” I ignored the part where they didn’t actually listen to my advice and decided that I loved listening to people’s problems. I decided that listening was obviously my calling.
I really did and still do love listening to people’s problems, worries and entire life stories. However, I have had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not as good at listening as I’ve always thought because, although I am excellent at listening to the big things, I’m not so good at listening to the small stuff. I am a chronic daydreamer and I am guilty of slipping into a daydream when people talk to me about things I don’t really care about, like Wimbledon or Star Wars or the really great sausage roll they had for lunch that day.
I learned how bad I really was at listening when I started working in special education. I think anyone working in education will agree that being a really good listener is difficult at the best of times. When there are targets to complete and a short amount of time to complete them, and everyone wants to talk at the same time, it is easy to engage in “half-listening”, which involves not really listening at all, but saying “Mmm” and “Oh, right” to make it seem like you are. Working with autistic people added an extra challenge, because they are capable of talking about their special interests with an intensity and passion that can only be matched by another autistic person talking about their special interest (I am guilty of this too — just ask my mother).
At first, I just did what I always did when someone talked to me about something I’m not particularly interested in: I switched off and answered with “Mmm” and “Ahh”. Then, one day, I witnessed a student approach another member of staff and begin discussing his favourite topic: Disney villains. He’d barely finished his first sentence when they said, “Why don’t you go and sit with your friends?” with no acknowledgement to the really cool and interesting fact he’d just told them about Maleficent. His face dropped and I watched him walk from person to person, receiving similar responses each time. I was suddenly hit with the realisation that I was guilty of doing the exact same thing and it didn’t make me feel very good.
I think we all think our time is more valuable than anyone else’s. If something doesn’t serve us, then what is the point in doing it, right? Why waste time doing something we don’t enjoy or listening to something we find boring? To a certain extent, I still believe that we shouldn’t do things we don’t enjoy (except all that boring but important stuff like laundry and paying bills), but I’ve come to believe that even the most mundane small talk is worth listening to. Why? Short answer: Because people feel valued when they are listened to. Long answer: Read on.
People feel valued when they are listened to
The older I get and the more people I meet, the more I realise we all share a common goal despite our differences. We’re all just trying to get through life. That’s it. We all have our own anxieties and tragedies, and we’re all just trying to carry on and live our lives in the best way we know how. It’s a lot easier if you have a sense of belonging and value. Listening to someone is the easiest way to give someone that. It also feels really good to make others feel good so you benefit from this too. If you don’t believe me, there are studies on this.
People will like you more
Raise your hand if you have a deep-rooted desire to be loved by everyone. If you didn’t raise your hand, you’re probably lying. If you’re not lying, what is your secret??
Humans are great. I love humans. We have a lot of great qualities, but we’re also just a complex mess of emotions and ego, and we really, really want to be liked. It’s probably something to do with pack mentality and survival instinct, but I don’t know the science behind it.