The power of active listening in building connections and understanding
May 27, 2024

The power of active listening in building connections and understanding

The power of active listening in building connections and understanding

I would define active listening as a method of conversation in which one enthusiastically explores, analyses, and curiously reflects upon the ideas and perspectives of the other in a non-assertive, collaborative manner…

Few skills are as life changing as active listening. Every time we engage in conversation or discussion, its quality is determined by how well both sides can exchange ideas, points of view, and opinions.
The best discussions are those in which all sides actively listen to each other and discover the commonalities in their arguments. This makes it possible to build links between ideas and to rethink one’s own views and opinions.

The most successful debaters and conversationalists are masters not just in illustrating their own ideas, but especially in understanding what their audience is thinking, drawing upon their current ideas, and adding on to them, rather than fighting against them.

Without active listening, we may believe we are sharing our ideas ingeniously in a way that nobody could possibly argue against. However, this approach is like trying to jump straight to the top of a mountain from its base. Like in hiking, the better – and most successful – approach, is to observe the surroundings, identify the trailhead, and start following its long and twisty path across and up the mountain.

In conversation, it is key to adapt to the surroundings as they change. One has to work with the flow of the landscape as it changes, as opposed to ignoring it, and getting on the wrong path. Similarly, in conversation, we have to open our mind to what is surrounding us, instead of just following our own mental path. Our mental surroundings should be made up of the ideas that the other person is communicating to us. We have to adapt to them.

The ideas and perspectives of the other person or audience can be used as stepping stones across the stream that separates us from understanding each other. To achieve this mutual insight, it is necessary to engage in an active exercise of understanding the other persons’ ideas and perspectives. If we don´t, we risk wasting our words and efforts on points irrelevant to the aim of developing some common appreciation of the topic at hand.

Since the beginning of my journey as a Young European Ambassador (YEA) in 2022, active listening has been a skill I have consistently refined. It is possibly one of the most important skills that we can all acquire with time and practice. Every activity or conversation one engages in is an opportunity to practise active listening. To take a step back from our own thoughts and ideas and allow the ideas of others to enter our minds. As Aristotle said in his Metaphysics: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Frequently and consciously trying to understand why someone else is stating something is key to achieving empathy, nurturing tolerance, and reining in emotions, which can run rampant in debates. I clearly remember a situation in which I was organising a series of projects, including a forest clean-up, in Galway’s City Park, Ireland. I had to maintain regular contact with the forest´s management to identify areas where we could work together to have the biggest impact. Both the management and I had the same objective – to improve the park to its highest potential – and to do that, we had to reconcile what we each saw and observed. We could have both ranted about what we perceived to be the issues at hand, talking about what incredible solutions we believed to have that would evidently solve the shortcomings we observed in the park.

However, this would have led us nowhere. Rather, what brought about our eventual success in the form of two clean-ups and a partnership between the Park and the University Students who would “adopt a patch” of forest, was that we were able to overcome our egos and frictions, and fully attempted to understand the visions, efforts, and justifications of each other. After patiently and regularly exchanging views, we managed to identify areas where our efforts could be directed most efficiently. Our ambitions required humility and to recognise that both of us had ideas worthy of recognition. Our previously held ideas were shaped and transformed, creating a novel, improved common vision.

Change is a key part of active listening. Accepting it is vital. To become master listeners, we are duty-bound to change the ways we talk to ourselves, and with others. We have to accept that our ideas will have to change: they shall adapt and include those of our counterparts in dialogue. I would define active listening as a method of conversation in which one enthusiastically explores, analyses, and curiously reflects upon the ideas and perspectives of the other in a non-assertive, collaborative manner. It is weaving a new web of connections, exploring where each node takes you, and testing the strength of the web you’re moving along. We can all improve our active listening skills. Luckily, there are experts who help us do this.

Alex Carrascosa, in his Ted Talk at Vitoria-Gasteiz (2023), gave expert advice on active listening and communication. First, he highlighted the imperative to deconstruct ourselves, and to elucidate what drives our motivations, emotions, and impulses. To do this, we have to ask ourselves: Why do I have this opinion? What experiences have made me think, and act like this? What would someone who disagrees with me have lived through, and argue? Why would they believe this?

And importantly, what are our ends? Our objectives by following this way of thinking? Next, we should appreciate that the individuals we converse with, who may appear so different in appearance, so distant, are in essence, remarkably similar to us. This has, in my experience, proved invaluable.

Active listening becomes most important when stakes are high, and tension may materialise in the conversation. Here, we can all become conflict mediators. As the US Ambassador to Ireland noted when I had the honour to ask her how she had dealt with conflict throughout her career: “The key is to realise that we have more in common than that which separates us.”

In his Ted Talk, Alex Carrascosa noted that active listening should not be:
Passive – “Yeah yeah go on, I’m listening…”
Judgemental – “Yes, but… Yes, but…”
Interruptive – “But wait, that is not…”
Confrontative – “I´ll listen to you, but I just won’t ever agree with you…”

What it’s all about, he says, is to engage in an attempt to understand the other person. And it’s also important not to fall into the trap of trying to help the other person sometimes. The other person may just need to feel heard and valued. Eventually, this will lead to mutual trust developing.

And this begs the question. When we are listening or talking, are we trying to bend the other person to fit and work for our worldview of reality, so that we can exist with each other? Why not, rather, genuinely try to exist with each other?

For me, true value lies within bridging divides between people. Discussions and arguments are not meant to broaden our differences, fuel our anxiety, and leave us with a sense of distrust and discomfort. Rather, they have as an objective to help us understand each other to be able to live together.

They are meant to unite us. In my experience as a YEA, I have discovered that there is amazing value in slowing down, silencing our mental voices for a bit, and opening ourselves up to discovery. Active understanding is the first step to a more peaceful and coherent society. And for that, active listening is the best tool at hand. It is key to existing together. Because indeed, we are #strongertogether.

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