So you think you are a good listener? But is your style of listening suitable for different cultures?

A good listener could be defined as someone who gives you a lot of attention when you are talking about your problems or things that worry you, and tries to understand and support you.

Whilst most of us probably agree on this definition, the difficulty is HOW to listen? Especially how to provide our undivided attention and communicate our support and understanding?

In her book “Time to think”, Nancy Kline, an American author, argues that in order to become a good listener you have to design a “thinking environment” that helps the listener to become skillful at listening. This in turn makes the talker/communicator feel supported, understood and encouraged to think deeper. 

Kline has identified 10 behaviours to create a “Thinking environment”. The first of these behaviours is generative attention.  Generative attention for Nancy Kline has two aspects; physical and behavioural

Let’s start with the physical aspect; the listener has to train in front of the mirror to portray an open-face which includes kindness. Nodding and encouraging sounds such as “Mmm hmm” can display interest but if these compassionate behaviours are expressed by a listener with a furrowed brow, the warm, benevolent impression disappears. Indeed, a furrowed brow or a furrowed forehead can send a message of confusion or annoyance that doesn’t give the impression to the other party to feel that they are supported. Hence the importance to practise the “open-face” that includes focusing on the recipient, an unfurrowed brow and a warm and engaging smile.

The behavioural aspect of the generative attention is linked to restraint. A good listener should refrain from interrupting and making observations. These two tendencies are often perceived as an imposition and a barrier to the talker’s ability to reflect and develop their own thinking. The assumption for both talker and listener is that the talker is solely responsible for the development of their thinking. 

The other behaviours are; equality, ease, appreciation, encouragement, feelings, appreciation, place, information, and incisive questions. These behaviours ensure that the listener gives space and never interferes with the talker’s thinking – which infers respect, support and acceptance.


Is attentive, silent listening universal or cultural?

In her book “The Culture Map” Erin Meyer differentiates between low-context communication countries (Anglo-Saxon cultures) and high-context communication countries (Asian cultures and to a lesser extent Latin European cultures).

In Anglo-Saxon cultures, the communicator feels responsible for transmitting a clear and explicit message and also feels accountable for their choice of words to confer the meaning of the message. By contrast, in many Asian cultures (e.g. China, Japan, India) and to a lesser degree in Latin European cultures (e.g. Spain, France or Italy), the responsibility and the accountability for the transmission of the message is shared by the communicator and the listener. The communicator often uses implicit language which is subtle and context-based and expects the listener to share the same unconscious assumptions and reference points to fill the gaps.  Therefore, the communicator in high-context cultures EXPECTS the listener to be active and to understand “what is meant” instead of what is said”. For example, when Olivia, a French designer says to Paul, her American colleagues “My plane lands at 19h00”, Olivia expects Paul to come and pick her up at the airport. It’s not what she says that is important, it’s what she means.  In “The Culture Map”, Erin Meyer introduces the example of Pablo Diaz, a Spanish executive working in China, who urges Americans working in Asia NOT TO ASSUME that their interlocutors are confusing on purpose. Instead, American expats should be aware that in China (and other high-context communication cultures), a good listener is expected to understand what is said behind a comment. Therefore, asking clarifying questions is seen as a good strategy to show attentive listening. For example, in the previous example, Paul, the American designer could ask Olivia, the French designer “Olivia, has the company organised a taxi for you or do you want me to come and pick you up?”  


How do good listeners express their support and understanding to their interlocutor?

When people we care about talk about their problems, complain about a colleague or share a worry – a silent nod, a warm smile or a clarifying question might not be enough to provide support and understanding.

In the Knowledge Project podcast #92, Lisa Felman Barrett suggests the following questions in order to show support and to help others feel better;

How can I help you?

Do you prefer empathy? Or do you want me to help you find a solution to your problem through actions?  

If the recipient wants empathy, physical contact is valuable (which can include hugs, a pat in the back or a pat on the hand). The listener can also reflect back on what they have heard to let the recipient feel understood. Linda Felman Barrett points out the biological benefit of this exercise (which includes stress relief and heart regulation).

If the recipient chooses the second option, they will expect pragmatic and useful processes or strategies that can be easily applied in the future.

To be a good listener requires a series of characteristics that can differ between cultures. Assuming that everybody shares our own assumptions of what a good listener is can lead to misunderstanding and confusion. Finding a way to express care, attention and support that the recipient can recognize and appreciate is vital as a listener.

“Often behind criticism, there is a wish.”  Esther Perel.

 – Sarah to Pete; “I’m so annoyed at Helen. She never communicates what she wants. She expects us to read her mind and when we don’t, she gets frustrated!”

 – Pete to Sarah; “Have you talked to her about it?”

 – Sarah; “No way, I don’t want to get fired!”

Is this scenario familiar? How often do we hear a colleague, a friend or a sibling complain about somebody else? 

In fact, we all complain on a regular basis. Research shows that 95% of us fail to complain directly to the person we have an issue with and choose instead to utilise the compliant ears of our friends instead. Most of the time, when we complain to a friend, we seek confirmation and approval from the listener (confirmation bias). We don’t want our beliefs and opinions questioned.


Our complaints reflect our perception of reality.

Esther Perel, a relational intelligence expert, argues that we have a tendency to react to other people’s behaviour; “She has avoided me all day”, “He made me feel so stupid.” Rarely do we examine how our own behaviour can impact other people; “I felt irritated this morning which could explain why she avoided me all day.” Therefore, we are more likely to focus on reacting to others’ behaviour rather than examining how our own behaviour can affect others. As Haris, the WEIRD philosopher said “Complaining is one of the ego’s favourite strategies. It reflects our own perception of reality and we are not willing to change it easily.” 

As Guy Winch, the author of the “squeaky wheel” explains, we understand that communicating our grievances directly is the most efficient way to complain. However, most of us think that this process would take too much time and effort, will end up in an argument and that we are very unlikely to change the person’s mind.

So instead, we whine to friends, repeating the same frustrating story and continuing to get irritated when telling the same story.


How do we complain productively?

First, before complaining, we need to establish what we want to achieve through the complaint;

 – Is it to vent, share our negative feelings and frustrations?

 – Or is it making sure that the other party listens and takes in what we have to say?

In the first instance, the person venting focuses on the process and should understand that this process won’t get a result, as “the tormentor” will either get very defensive or will just switch off.

In the second instance, the person focuses on the result. There is little to gain from sharing their negative emotions and therefore it is important to avoid the satisfaction of ‘winning’ an argument.


What are we trying to get out of our complaint?

In his book “Tiny habits”, B.J Fogg argues that information alone is not enough to change any behaviour in the long term. New behaviours have to be very specific and easy to do if we want them to stick.  

Therefore, before complaining, we have to establish what we are trying to get out of our complaint. This includes defining what we expect the listener to do after hearing a complaint. The answer may be; an apology, a promise that they will never do it again,  an explanation, a concrete way that they will make it up to you or an emotional connection.

This expectation is often fluid. It can start with “I want an apology,” and end up as “Actually what I was after was his recognition of my contribution.”

It can be helpful to understand why complaints are made. Esther Perel defines the 6 common themes that most complaints are built upon;

 – Power and Control

 – Care and Trust

 – Recognition and Respect.

These themes can help us define the core of our complaint. Do we want, for example, more recognition or more freedom (Control) or more transparency (Trust)?


The complaint sandwich

Having understood the ‘why’ it is important to think through the ‘how’. Guy Winch offers a step by step video guide to complaining. 

The first part of the sandwich, the piece of bread is “The ear opener”. That piece of bread is a positive statement that won’t trigger a defensive reaction from the listener. In our example at the beginning of the article, Sarah could go to Helen and say something like “I really value the trust you put in us but…” Depending on the listener, the bread can be more or less fluffy, perhaps one sentence is enough or a longer introduction may be necessary.

Then comes “the meat” – this is the core of the complaint. You have to explain why you feel hurt. It has to be short and specific and use the pronoun “I” instead of “You” to avoid triggering the listener’s defensiveness. In Sarah’s case, she could say “but sometimes, I find it difficult to understand what you want and it confuses me.”

Finally comes the last piece of bread that Guy Wynch calls “the digestive”. It’s a pointer at what both sides can do to rectify the problem. Sarah could say “Maybe next time I feel confused, I can approach you and verify I’m on the right track? Would that be acceptable for you?”


The advantages of the complaint sandwich

When you serve a complaint sandwich; 

 – You are less likely to trigger defensiveness from the listener,

 – You focus on the complaint itself which should be short and easy to understand,

 – Finally, as you offer a solution that is easy to apply, you increase the likelihood of a positive response from the other party.


How to eat a complaint sandwich?

In order for the complaint to be productive, the listener has to play their part in order to “get the message”, this includes;

1. Not interrupting the complainer – otherwise they don’t feel heard.

2. Verify that they understand why the complainer is upset. Often two  people can repeat the same argument over and over again because they are not understanding each other. In our example, Helen can interpret the reason for Sarah’s confusion differently than what Sarah intended to say. Helen may understand that she is setting expectations too high. Sarah may be trying to convey that Helen is constantly changing her expectations.

3. Acknowledge the complaint by paraphrasing what the complainer is saying and feeling. This way the complainer feels that they have been heard and their emotions are validated. In our example, Helen could say “I understand that you are perplexed by my management style and that you would like to understand the nature of your role. Did I get that right?”

Complaining directly to the person we have an issue with rather than looking for confirmation bias from our friends, identifying the goal of our complaint and our expectations, help us to frame the issue more clearly and efficiently. Complaining well not only leads to healthy conflicts but encourages both parties to feel empowered, assertive and effective rather than defeated, upset and powerless.

Women aspire to get a seat at the board table whilst men aspire to get a seat at the emotional intelligent table,” Owen Marcus

From infancy, girls from Western cultures are often taught to display a large variety of positive emotions but to internalize negative emotions (such as sadness or anxiety). The western concept of what a man should be comes with other strict rules for boys. “Acting like a man” means being “allowed” to display a small palette of negative emotions (such as anger, disgust, contempt) but also being expected, to hide “feminine” emotions such as vulnerability and empathy. The learned feminine skill of expressing emotions and understanding the emotions of others facilitates close relationships with others. 

With the threat of automation and the advance of AI, AI experts realise that these apparently “feminine” attributes (empathy, vulnerability, emotional regulation, support) are essential qualities for us all as they reflect our “humanness” – which robots can’t replace. The threat of AI has forced us to reconsider the traditional patriarchal model of masculinity that prevents men to be humble and vulnerable, two characteristics that can’t be automated (for the moment). Furthermore, the impact of the #MeToo movement denouncing the toxicity of hyper-masculinity as well as the affirmation of gender fluidity have both reinforced the need to deconstruct old toxic models of masculinity and to create new models.

Owen Marcus, an expert on masculine emotional intelligence, explains that men can express their emotions and display empathy as well as vulnerability so long as they feel safe and not judged. However, for many male westerners who have learned, since a young age, to “keep their emotions in check”, identifying and expressing their emotions is harder and takes longer than it does for women. Often, they display socially acceptable emotions such as anger to hide more profound feeling of loneliness and sadness.  As Terry Real, the Relational Life Institute, states, “often men don’t have the vocabulary to express what they really feel”.

That is why Marcus created “men groups” where everybody who identifies as a man is invited to construct together what it means to be a man.  These group sessions filter through three different phases, starting with;

1- A physical awareness: acknowledging clenched fists, tense neck and shoulders or a jittering leg. Marcus argues that, for most men, physical sensations are much easier to detect and can naturally be paired with emotions for the second phase of the process.

2- Then, individuals learn to attach an emotional interpretation to a physical sensation; I lean my body forward because I’m intrigued, my leg is jittery because I am worried about being judged, my neck is tense because I feel frustrated.

3- Finally, supportive feedback is given from other members of the community – who are encouraged to be kind. Once the man who took an “emotional dive” feels respected for it by the other men of the group, he feels safe to explore this “world of emotion” deeper.

Slowly, men learn that “opening up” and exposing their vulnerable side can be a bonding and rewarding experience.


How does that translate to the workplace?

Work environments are generally not perceived as safe environments as men and women are more likely to behave in a “socially accepted” manner that harks back to stereotypical gendered behaviours; women are expected to be helpful, caring and relational whilst men are expected to be assertive, independent and aggressive. Men and women engage in social and professional dances (roles) where many try to appear to be in control, successful and hardworking. A successful persona implies behaving in a tough, resilient, dedicated and committed manner. Those are adjectives that could describe robots. 


So when “men groups” are not available or too stigmatised, where can men find a safe environment similar to one suggested by Marcus?

Male meet-up groups, male sport groups and, all-male book club groups are all venues where men could feel safe to explore their masculinity without feeling judged. In these groups, they can learn to be powerful and vulnerable at the same time, Marcus calls this “assertive vulnerability”. Feeling heard and acknowledged by peers contributes to self-confidence. Newly earned confidence can motivate men to apply what they learned in these sessions to other areas of their lives (for example at home or at work).  

A new generation of men, dissatisfied with the traditional concept of masculinity rejects it. These men create new models of masculinity that take into account all the complexity, ambiguity and nuances of this concept. Challenging the patriarchal status quo involves emotional, social and spiritual changes that could foster meaningful connections. Indeed, these changes can create a framework where men are allowed to access and embrace “feminine” emotions and still feel like a man.