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What makes a good listener? … in different cultures?

Posted 16th December 2020

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.

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