What makes a good listener?

In an age where it seems everyone is checking their phone while chatting, Jonathan deBurca Butler asks, are we any good at listening?

IT’S said that the Irish have the gift of the gab. We are known the world over for our beautiful blás and turn of phrase. We are, we are told, great storytellers.

But are we any good at listening?

According to English-based business consultants Cross Culture, Irish people fall somewhere between what they call linear-active and multiactive communicators, two of three categories classified by the Lewis Model of Cross-Cultural Communication, devised by 86-year-old British multilinguist Richard D Lewis.

“The Irish are linear-active on account of their close historical connection with the Anglo-Saxon peoples [who are planners that prefer direct discussion],” says Lewis. 

“However they also have multiactive qualities engendered by their liveliness, talkativeness, and sense of humour. They are not as loquacious as the Italians but much more so than the English.”

Lewis Model: Irish people fall somewhere between what they call linear-active and multiactive communicators.
Lewis Model: Irish people fall somewhere between what they call linear-active and multiactive communicators.

Put another way, according to the Lewis Model, we are three steps away from the Germans, the strongest linear-actives on the Lewis Model Diagram and we are moving towards the red multiactive Italians. 

We share the same spot as Australians and Danes.

So where does that leave us as listeners?

“The Irish are good listeners,” says Lewis. 

“They are constantly on the hunt for humour, especially anecdotes which they can retell. They are adventurous listeners in as much as they love zeroing in on their own interpretation of anything out of the ordinary. 

"They are great storytellers, which automatically classifies them as eager listeners and gatherers of material.”

The third string to the Lewis Model bow is the reactive communicator, typical of the cultures of Japan, China, and Vietnam who tend to listen attentively and react slowly. 

Does that make the Asians the best listeners in the world then?

“It’s impossible to quantify really,” says Pat Dermody, a relationship counsellor with the Hazelton Clinic in Cork. 

“You can’t say one nation is better than the other. Everyone can be a good listener but not everyone chooses to be. You have good individuals who listen and others who are not so good.”

What makes a good listener?

Over his ten-plus years as a psychotherapist and counsellor, Dermody has come across couples and individuals who come to him when they realise they are at something of a crossroads in their lives and relationships. 

More often than not, listening is at the heart of the problem.

“I think first of all it’s worth identifying what listening actually is,” he says. 

“Listening isn’t mind reading. Quite a lot of the time in relationships you might hear one partner say, ‘I know what they are really thinking’ when in fact they’re not actually listening at all. 

"We think we listen but we don’t necessarily do so because we just hear the stuff we want to hear, the things that fits in with what we imagine or want to be the case. 

"There is a preconceived notion of what the person is saying but not what the person is actually saying.”

Dermody explains that communication breakdown often starts within oneself.

What makes a good listener?

“I’m sure you’ve used the phrase, ‘Oh this always happens to me’ the odd time,” he says. 

“It doesn’t ‘always happen to you’ but it fits in with the narrative of you having a bit of bad luck. By creating this false narrative for yourself, you’re actually not listening to yourself.

“The same applies to something like ‘you never listen to me’,” he continues. 

“Including a word like ‘never’ gives it an emotional punch but it’s probably not entirely accurate. By including ‘never’, the speaker is creating a false narrative.

“It’s a lie. But it packs a stronger emotional impact than ‘you don’t listen to me on the odd occasion’ and I can dismiss what the other person is saying by using a word like ‘never’.”

According to Dermody, there is no major physiological difference between men and women’s ability to listen. Any differences are perceived and/or cultural.

“I’m a psychotherapist,” he says. 

“It’s a profession that’s predominantly inhabited by women because traditionally women are looked upon as better communicators. 

"That’s part of the culture that we grow up in and we are exposed to as children. But we all have the capacity to transcend that and to be good listeners.”

It is not just our health that benefits from being good with our ears, listening is also financially prudent. 

What makes a good listener?

Bernard Ferrari, author of Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All believes that when you’re “quiet” you are “in control”.

“Listening is an important ingredient in investment decisions,” Ferrari told www.MarketWatch.com a number of years ago. 

“Companies that deserve our confidence in investment are those that have leaders who we believe are the better listeners.”

Fabio Grassi, of the Irish Management Institute, takes it a step further.

“I don’t know if entrepreneurs are necessarily good listeners per se,” he says, “but they are good at making connections. They pay attention to the markets and look at how the markets are behaving. They see what’s available in the market and see what the market is missing.”

For Grassi, the modern business world is plagued by distractions with information “coming at us from so many different places”.

“The big thing for people, not just people in business, is to be present,” he says.

“The Chinese have a symbol they use for listening. They take a holistic view, so it’s made up of the ear, obviously, for listening but there is also the brain that processes what we hear, and the eyes to make contact, the heart which symbolises feeling, and the body for presence.”

Dermody agrees with the necessity for presence and explains that when he was studying to become a counsellor there was a specific module on how to listen.

“Listening and attending skills are so important,” he says. 

What makes a good listener?

“If we are talking and I’m looking at my watch or my leg is going or I’m talking more than you are or I’m changing subject, there’s all these different ways that we can distract and deflect and not listen. 

"When we listen, we need to look at body posture, maintaining eye contact, the tone of the voice and that verbal attending ‘I see’, ‘I know what you mean’ and so on.”

Given that we live in a world of smartphones and instantly available social media, is the art of listening something that needs to be added to the curriculum?

“I think it is something that should be taken on from an educational point of view,” says Dermody.

“Our children actually need to be taught and learn how to listen.”

Maybe we all do. As Mark Twain put it: “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.”


What makes a good listener?

Don’t talk, listen: When somebody else is talking listen to what they are saying, do not interrupt, talk over them or finish their sentences for them. Particularly the latter. Not only is it enraging but you might say something you regret.

Focus on the speaker: Put other things out of mind. The human mind is easily distracted by other thoughts.

Get off the phone: Self-explanatory really but so often broken.

Ask, ask and ask some more: If you’re not clear what they are saying then ask. It shows you are interested.

Be yourself: If you don’t understand their, probably pretentious gibberish, then don’t be afraid to stop them and say: ‘What’s schadenfreude?’.


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