Significance20of20 Listening20 20 Netta20 Weinstein20 20 Guy20 Itzchakov
Oct 13, 2021

The Significance of Listening Well: Why the Listener is at the Heart of Social Agency

Listening is like a muscle that requires training.

By Netta Weinstein and Guy Itzchakov

This post is the first in a series from the 11 Awardees of the Templeton World Charity Foundation's Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing. The Foundation is investing US $60 million to grow the field of human flourishing to encompass scientific research, practice, and policy. Check back as we launch further requests for proposals under this important rubric.

Recent years have seen numerous examples of global discord and challenges to our ways of life and social interactions, but this is also a time when incredible efforts are being made in pockets of cultures around the world to support freedom of expression, overcome biases, and come to a shared understanding with dissimilar others. There is a growing current, one which must be nurtured, to develop I-thou relationships with others; relationships characterized by mutual understanding, valuing and respect. The bedrock of these relationships is meaningful and genuine dialogue about values, goals, and strategies for overcoming differences. The goal is not conformity; instead, these dialogues can bring about social connection built around mutual goals that transcend specific differences. Individuals retain their uniqueness and at the same time can respect different others. 

Researchers, policymakers, and interested members of the public focus on how to achieve these social connection goals by understanding and modifying language. For example, we ask, what are the right words to create inclusive cultures that respect all their members? We also tend to focus on what is being done to solve social problems. Which actions are taken, and should be taken, to equalize opportunities and offer safety and security regardless of background? The importance of these initiatives cannot be overstated, because it is clear that both words and actions have a significant impact on individual others and on cultural change. 

But we, the authors, believe that words and actions fundamentally interact with a third category of social exchange — listening well to one another. The listener is an active partner in conversation, and can shape the constructive or destructive direction a conversation takes. Yet, the role of the listener is not straightforward. When conversation partners share their views respectfully or cooperate readily, it is easier and more rewarding to listen. It is also easier to listen to people who share their personal stories than to those who merely describe facts. Yet, if good listening is conferred during polarizing and difficult conversations, it can be a powerful and, we believe, fundamental, tool that helps speakers to rethink their assumptions, views, and behavior. 

What does it mean to listen well?
What does it mean to listen well? Listening can mean many things. But it comes down to giving others a safe space to have their voice heard and understood, while also conveying valuing, and a non-judgmental approach. Evidence from our lab and others’ work suggests that high-quality listening encourages a sense of self-expression, authentic exploration, self-initiative, and relational valuing. In conversing partners and in small groups, these relational affordances can be conveyed through the ways that listeners communicate their non-verbal behaviors, ones that are open, receptive, and kind. Good listeners also provide some limited verbal feedback that facilitates, rather than drives, the conversation. The questions and reflections provided by a good listener help the speaker to feel understood, and, in-turn, to understand themselves better.

Listening during polarizing conversations
Why is such listening important during polarizing conversations? Good listening lays the groundwork for discussions where the speaker, responding to the listeners’ cues, feels open, safe, non-defensive, close, and connected to the listener. These internal experiences help speakers overcome natural instincts to stick to their initial beliefs and reaffirm or bolster worldviews at any cost. We can think of listening like glassblowing. The brittle material is stretched and molded, and in capable hands crafted into intricate patterns. At typical temperatures, it will not yield. Yet, exposed to a furnace temperature of 2,400°F, the tough material is receptive and malleable. People are certainly more complicated, but feeling listened to, like the furnace heat, supports elaboration and intricacy in our understanding of the world and others within it. 

There is great merit in listening well, but we also have reason to believe that it is not an easy solution that will single-handedly resolve polarization. Good listening may have its limitations and even its drawbacks. For example, speakers who feel listened to may perceive their worldview to be validated. Given no reason to change, they may respond to listening by feeling supported, but complacent in their views. Therefore, listening may need partners-in-action: Challenges, reframing, problem-solving, and even restrictions and consequences. 

What’s more, it’s not easy to become a good listener only by reading about it. Listening is like a muscle that requires training. Good listeners must tolerate hearing things they disagree with, find upsetting or threatening, even repulsive, and overcome their natural tendency to evaluate what they hear. They are challenged to continue to value the speaker in the face of this evidence. They may like the speaker even less after the conversation is done. A listener who intends to learn, and values the humanity of the conversational partner, has a better chance of leaving the conversation with their positive intentions in-tact. We believe the listener who can achieve this is a social agent for good: they can bring about social change and empower others to do the same. 

There is still much to be learned about listening. We need to understand listening globally, across cultures, backgrounds, domains of life, and conversation types. The willingness to listen is far from global. We need to explore many questions: How do we encourage people to listen? What does it look like to be listened to, and how do we teach people to do it? What else do we need to do alongside listening for it to produce change, and not complacency? All these questions may depend on the cultural backgrounds, needs, and views of those in conversation. 

Listening plays an important role in efforts to support freedom of expression, overcome biases, and come to shared understanding with dissimilar others. But it’s not an easy or simple solution. Looking forward, we need robust, transparent, generalizable, and reproducible research on the topic. We also need to be careful about our own biases, and listen well to others about potential limitations, pitfalls and caveats of our work. The knowledge we gain can help us to harness a powerful tool for reducing polarization and supporting flourishing — that of listening, well, to one another.

Netta Weinstein is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading. She holds an honorary research fellowship at Cardiff University and is a Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. She received her BA in psychology at San Diego State University (2004) and her Ph.D. in clinical psychology (2010) at the University of Rochester (USA) with a focus on quantitative research in the areas of social and experimental psychology. Informed, in part, by her clinical background, her research explores the complex, often recursive links between interpersonal interactions, motivation, well-being, and behavior. She places particular focus on understanding the relational and personal outcomes of high-quality listening. She is currently Associate Editor at the Journal of Personality and edited a book (Springer) titled Human Motivation and Interpersonal Relationships.

Guy Itzchakov is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Services, Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Science at the University of Haifa. He received his BA in Psychology and Economics from the Open University of Israel (2010), MA from Tel-Aviv University in Public Policy (2011), and Ph.D. in Business Administration from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2017). Guy was a postdoctoral fellow at Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto (2018). Guy’s research focuses on the effects of high-quality listening on speakers’ emotions, attitudes, and behaviors. In addition, he conducts field studies that examine how listening training programs in organizations impact managers, employees, and organizational outcomes. His research appeared in journals such as Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Journal of Experiment Social Psychology, European Journal of Social Psychology, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, Harvard Business Review, and Applied Psychology: An International Review.