There are two guiding principles that I strive to live by (ok, there are a few more, but these two are most relevant to this post, and also easiest for anyone to adopt): understand that everyone is the hero of his or her own story, and assume positive intent.

Moving through the world, whether it be at work, at home, or just sharing public space with strangers, is all about communication. We need to listen for, and respond to, the signals that others are sharing in order to get where we need to go (literally or metaphorically). Despite this fact, many of us (myself included!) are bad at listening. I have a theory about why that is.

I’m the most important person in the world, to me. I live in my body. I have to listen to the self-talk in my brain. My finances, personal relationships, dreams, and ambitions all have a direct impact on my quality of life: my happiness, feeling of security, sense of self. When interacting with others, it helps to remember that, to them, they are the most important person in the world. My problems will barely register for them. They don’t care if I’m sore or grumpy. They are definitely not interested in hearing about the strange and unsettling dream I had—they are far too busy trying to understand why their ex popped into their subconscious as a zombie last night, or doing the mental math to make sure they can pay their rent/mortgage at the end of the month.

Because I am a self-centered human, it’s easy to believe that the actions of others are about me. The boss too busy for our regular meeting must be avoiding me—I must have done something to upset them. My partner seems a bit distant—they are probably mad at me for never taking out the garbage. The friendly and efficient barista is most likely flirting because I’m so charming, not because they are friendly and efficient people who are paid to do their jobs well. It must be all about me.

Assuming that everyone is acting in good faith is a time/energy saver—you don’t have to worry about parsing behavior or intent.

Except that it’s not.

Assuming that people I interact with have a positive intent goes a long way toward mitigating this belief. They are the heroes of their own story, and they are just doing the best they can to get by. Just as I am not at my best when I’m tired or grumpy, neither are they. They are not doing those things at me. They are simply trying to do the best they can for themselves at that moment. Of course, some people are just difficult to get along with, and people who take some pleasure in being jerks. But, there’s really not much you can do about those people, and assuming that everyone is acting in good faith is a time/energy saver—you don’t have to worry about parsing behavior or intent.

Activate Active Listening Skills

Listening is all about empathy. It’s about reaching out of your own head and entering a world where you are not the main character, about getting interested in alternative points of view. In the moment, it can be incredibly challenging. It’s also one of the best tools we can use to have more effective relationships.

As we head into the holiday season and a new year, I will be working on my active listening skills to be a more effective employee, teammate, friend, and family member. Here are some dos and don’t of listening: use them at your next team meeting or holiday party for more effective collaborations, relationships, or just to get through the small talk with all those distant relatives. You may be amazed by what you hear.


Assume Positive Intent

active listening skillsIf you start from the position that more people are doing their best, you can sidestep some of the negativity that comes from assuming they are out to get you. A grumpy co-worker is more likely stressed from a long commute than they are to be mad at you. That distant aunt who never remembers what your job is isn’t forgetful just to spite you—she just sees you once a year and is preoccupied with her own family baggage.

Ask Clarifying Questions

Don’t understand a term or acronym? Ask about it. If you get caught just nodding along you won’t win any points. In personal conversations, I’m a big fan of asking someone to “say more about that,” if they allude to something that I don’t fully understand. It may be a bit casual of a line to use in a meeting with your boss, but I find that an invitation to elaborate can create some really interesting conversations.

Learn to Recognize What Isn’t Said

A sudden shift in body language, a change in tone or pace in their voice, a bit of a trail off followed by a change in topic—these are all indicators that there is likely more to the story. Follow up gently, but pay attention for cues of discomfort, and don’t push too hard.

Reflect Back What You Hear

Taking the time to summarize what’s just been said, and to check your level of understanding, not only makes the other person feel that you value their perspective, it can also save time and frustration down the road. Reflecting back what you hear is a powerful way to make sure that you’re on the same page and working toward the same goal. “If I understand you correctly, it sounds like you’re feeling…” “I just want to make sure I fully grasp the problem, the delay in the project is the result of [these] outside forces.” “I’m not sure I know what you mean, but from what I hear so far it’s [this]. What else am I missing?”


Solve Problems (If You Haven’t Been Asked for Advice)

“I’m sorry you’re going through that.” “I believe you.” At most, “let me know if there’s anything I can do.” When you offer up unsolicited advice or try to “fix” people, you’re projecting your own insecurities and need for control on them. You are making yourself the hero of their story. Don’t do it.

Jump In with Your Thoughts the Minute they Stop Talking

A pause isn’t necessarily an invitation. Instead, process what’s been said, ask follow up questions, give them a second to collect their thoughts. Active listening isn’t about waiting for your turn to speak.

Drastically Change the Subject Without Acknowledging the Switch

This one drives me nuts. While a great conversation will inevitably meander and change directions a few times, a dramatic shift in the tone or subject of a conversation signals to the other person that you don’t really care about what they just said. My partner and I have a great shorthand for this, which you are welcome to borrow. We’ll use the phrase “weak segue” or “quick tangent” to signal to the other that we heard what they were saying, one particular element of the conversation reminded us of something wildly different, and we just want to share that before getting back to the original subject. By signposting those shifts for each other, we cut down on a lot of frustration and demonstrate respect for the other’s position, while still letting the conversation flow organically.

Being a good listener won’t always come naturally, but I believe that it’s worth working on. When you truly listen to what others are communicating—when you can recognize that a conversation is about more than just yourself, and have empathy for that perspective—it can open so many doors and deepen a relationship. Let someone else be the hero for a few moments. You might hear something wonderful.

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash
Photo by Adam Freeman on Unsplash
Moving through the world, at work, home, or sharing public space with strangers, is all about communication. These active listening skills will help.