Listening is key to wisdom. People who will not listen are stuck, cannot grow, and are likely a hazard to others. It’s not enough to listen to understand–we must listen to learn, and to discern. Here are the practices and mindsets of great listeners on the path to wisdom.
Let’s first imagine that you’re listening to a recorded speaker, or an interview via a podcast. You can’t ask questions in real-time, but you can listen to learn.
Be open to new, even awkward information. A closed mind and a fixed mindset cannot grow by listening, only make judgments and ignore potentially useful information. You need to have a mature understanding of your personal worldviews and limiting biases. You must value depth and clarity over ease and comfort if you seek to learn and grow.
Seek out contrarian views and contrasting perspectives. Echo-chambers which reflect only your worldview and experiences have walls and limitations.
Exercise patience to keep listening when (I do not say if) it gets uncomfortable. Often your first impulse to stop listening is short of when you could learn something useful.
Take notes. Observe your own reactions. Capture what you need to process it later. Imagine describing the main points to someone else; this will help you pay attention.
Take time for discernment. How do their comments and positions stand up to your tests for logic, consistency, sensibility, and practicality? How would you characterize the strengths and weaknesses of their views, and how they are presented? Are they credible? Did they challenge a convention or expectation? How would you evaluate the truth and/or error of their statements? What would be worth sharing with others, based on what you learned?
If you are with a person in actual conversation, then keep your purpose in mind; it is better to learn than to “win.” It’s possible for you to learn from anyone. These tips may be helpful.
Pursue depth. Ask follow-up questions to elicit more information during a conversation. Your goal is to get a sense of the why behind statements and expressions. Your objective should be to learn enough to articulate this person’s views and experiences. Restate and summarize without critical tone. Being able to articulate a position well does not mean you agree with it.
Focus on them. If 90% of your brain is occupied with how you will respond, you’re guaranteed to miss important information that can help you learn. Let your body language reflect your genuine interest.
Pause. Respond wisely. Resist the impulse to debate and destroy, however tempting. There is a time and structure for debate, but I’m speaking here about listening in conversations. If you don’t pause, but reflexively answer, you’re robbing yourself of the time and space to assess what has been said (and left unsaid). Detach. Consider. Ponder.
Be grateful. Say “thank you.” These are not mindless or meaningless courtesies.
Listening to learn and discern requires practice and self-discipline. It’s difficult enough to do well that few people are good at it–which means that you can surpass most people in a short period of dedicated effort.