Paying attention and happiness (part 4) – active listening

Hello and welcome to this month’s neuro blog! Last month, we discussed other-awareness and landed on the notion that disagreement – about beliefs, values and behaviours – is more likely to be the norm. I advocated tolerance but also proposed that you put on a metaphorical Detective Columbo’s raincoat (no need for the cigar nor the dishevelled look) and go look for the other’s person’s inner landscape, asking open questions to give them the freedom to respond as they wish, and thereby letting a new reality emerge – theirs.In conclusion, I promised to write next about active listening as another technique to dispel disagreement. And open questions provide a neat segue into the topic of active listening. Would you agree that some questions make you feel understood, appreciated – whereas others irritate you or might even feel threatening? Would you agree that questions that feel like an interrogation by the Spanish Inquisition are unlikely to trigger positive emotions?

Recall an earlier blog (see: where I described our brain as our meaning-making organ? Questions put to us act as a type of stimulus and provoke an emotional reaction first, an experience which eventually reaches our cortex – and therefore our language centres – and manifests in our conscious awareness in the form of a narrative whereby we tell ourselves (and possibly others) what this experience means to us, e.g. "I resent you asking me all these questions!".

In contrast, if someone demonstrates that they’ve been paying attention to you by asking a question which is clearly linked to what you just said, wouldn’t that stimulus elicit a positive emotion? You might think: "They’re sincerely interested in me" or "They’re not judging me" or even "I know they don’t agree but I appreciate that they respect my point of view". So it’s more than open questions which work well: it’s what I label "linked" questions, questions which rebound on what the person just shared. Typically, such questions ask the speaker to either elaborate about something (I call them ‘tell me more’ questions) or they invite them to expound (I think of those as ‘anything else you’d like to share’ questions). Avoid leading questions to show open-mindedness. Just go on that journey of discovery with this other person guiding you around their inner landscape.

Active listening stands in contrast to selective listening: where we listen to confirm our views, or for the opportunity to intervene (interrupt?) and put forth our two cents. Active listening involves linked questions but, of course, silencethat space you give the other person to answer to their heart’s content. And I would also suggest that it involves summarising and paraphrasing, for instance: "Do I understand you correctly that…..?" or "Listening to you, I hear that you believe we have 3 options". That way, you get to check your understanding and avoid the pitfall of assuming you got it AND you build rapport by showing you genuinely care about understanding the other person.

Open and linked questions, listening in silence and checking for common meaning all send the other person positive stimuli which will elicit, first, positive emotions and, consequently, a positive experience of their time with you. It will build and nurture this relationship. It will diffuse conflict and allow disagreement to exist without hostility. I posit that it will also lead to a positive experience for you because it will enrich your perspective and broaden your horizons.

If you’d like to tell me about your behaviour and/or your brain, you will find me at In the meantime, relax and let your brain look after you!

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