Monday, October 26, 2020

How to listen — really listen — to someone you don’t agree with

by Tania Israel, Ideas

    Image: Avalon Nuovo

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Listening may not be the most exciting part of conversation, but it’s essential if you want to have a meaningful exchange with another person.

Think about a time you felt misunderstood by somebody. Did you defend yourself? Correct them? Or simply disengage? Regardless of your response, you likely didn’t feel comfortable with them.

Now think of how it feels to be understood — you can relax, you want to open up, you feel more trusting. When you listen in a way that makes the other person feel heard, they are more likely to share information with you. And when you are actively listening, you are also more likely to take it in.

In my training as a psychologist, I spent a lot of time learning how to actively listen. I can tell you from years of experience that having a productive dialogue is not possible without active listening.

The 1st active listening skill is nonverbal attending

Nonverbal attending means giving someone your full attention without speaking. Here are some of the basics:

Keep your body open to the other person. Try to be relaxed but attentive. If you’re sitting, lean forward a bit rather than slouching back.

Maintain moderate levels of eye contact. Look at the speaker but not like you’re in a staring contest with them.

Use simple gestures to communicate to the other person that you’re listening and encouraging them to continue. Head nods are one way — just don’t do it continuously. Occasionally say “Mm-hmm” to communicate encouragement.

The final key to nonverbal attending is staying silent. But remember: You can’t listen very well if you’re talking. In fact, if you rearrange the letters of the word “listen,” it spells “silent.” I can’t believe it took me 20 years of teaching to discover this, but it’s a useful reminder!

Offering somebody uninterrupted time to talk, even a few minutes, is a generous gift that we seldom give each other. It doesn’t mean you have to keep your mouth shut for hours and hours, but I encourage you to see how long you can simply listen to somebody without wanting to interrupt.

Some people find the most difficult part of listening is not talking. There’s a deep humility in listening, because your focus is on understanding the other person rather than on saying everything that comes into your mind. Your aim is to understand and help the speaker feel understood, and reserve your speech for what moves you closer to either of these goals.

The 2nd active listening skill is reflecting

Reflecting means repeating or rephrasing key content or meaning from the other person.

A reflection communicates that you heard what the other person said. Rather than saying, “I hear you,” you show you’ve heard them by sharing back what they said. It also confirms that you have an accurate understanding of their thoughts.

If you’re a little off target, it gives them an opportunity to correct you. This can be useful if you didn’t quite understand what they were saying.

For example, let’s say a friend tells you, “I just came from a PTA meeting, and I’m so frustrated with charter schools! They’re draining money from the school system which is already stretched, so we don’t have the funds to support students and teachers. Plus, they’re weakening the teachers’ union. I wish the charter school parents would put all that energy into supporting existing schools instead of creating new ones.”

If you said, “You think charter schools are ruining the educational system,” your friend could clarify, “Well, not exactly ruining it as much as creating challenges for the existing schools.”

Now you may be wondering, “Won’t that be weird to just repeat back what they’re saying?” Or you may think, “They just said it. How can it be helpful for me to say it back?”

Reflecting typically feels more awkward for the person doing it — i.e., you — than for the person hearing it. What I know, and what’s supported by considerable research, is that people like having their thoughts and feelings reflected back to them.

Just don’t repeat them back word for word. Use fewer words and summarize rather than transcribe. I call this “nuggetizing.” Get at the nugget of what they’re saying, and say it briefly so you don’t interrupt the flow. Focus on something that seems meaningful to the other person; pull out an idea that gets to the heart of what they’re saying. You could preface your reflection with one of these: “I hear that you’re saying,” “It sounds as though,” “So….”

The crucial role of reflection is to help people feel heard, and to make sure you understand them. It’s more important for you to simply be present than to be brilliant.

The 3rd active listening skill is asking open-ended questions

As you listen, questions will pop into your head, and you’ll want answers. While asking questions is very appealing, they have the potential to interrupt the other person’s thinking, shift the focus to your agenda, interfere with connection and derail a conversation.

To use questions effectively, keep a few things in mind:

Always attend and reflect before you ask a question. Understanding the other person and helping them feel understood provides a strong foundation. If you haven’t communicated that you heard someone, they may not be inclined to open up to your question.

You might feel like asking questions is how you best communicate your interest. That may be true but if you attend and reflect first, a question says, “I’m interested in what you just said” rather than “I’m interested in your response to what I want to hear about.”

When you do ask a question to promote dialogue, it’s most effective to use questions that are open-ended and cannot be answered simply with a “yes” or “no”. For example, rather than asking “Do you think public charter schools should receive the same level of funding as other public schools?” which can be answered “yes” or “no,” you might ask, “How do you think public charter schools should be funded?” Open-ended questions promote elaboration and exploration.

Just as in reflecting, you want to keep your questions simple. Resist the urge to try to guide or impress the other person with your exceptionally astute question.

One of my favorite and most concise ways to ask questions is simply to repeat back a key word with an upward intonation. For example, if somebody says, “I just feel like the world is so dangerous,” you can say “Dangerous?” By using the upward intonation, the word becomes a question. It says, “Tell me more about how the world is dangerous.”

It’s important to stay neutral in both tone and content. Judgment and opinion can come across loud and clear in your tone. Saying “Is that where you’re going on vacation?” is more contentious than “Tell me how you decided to go there for vacation” (which is a statement that’s really a question).

It’s also important to think about when to ask your question. Don’t interrupt the other person just to ask something.

The final thing to keep in mind about attending, reflecting and open-ended questions is that these tools are intended to help promote understanding by developing greater connection. Connection is the most important thing.

So if the tools aren’t working in a situation or if you’re able to have connection without these tools, don’t force them. That said, don’t underestimate them either. They’re backed by research and experience, and they can help you to navigate the unpredictable, challenging waters of dialogue with others.

Excerpted from the new book Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work by Tania Israel, PhD. Reprinted with permission from the American Psychological Association. Copyright © 2020 by American Psychological Association.

Watch Tania Israel‘s TEDxUCLA Talk here: 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The PhD: Confessions of a perfectionist

by Jenny Mak, PhD Life:

In the academic world, we can feel a lot of pressure trying to do our consistent best as PhD students, so much so that we might find ourselves getting stuck in perfectionism. Jenny Mak offers two tips for the recovering perfectionist …

originally posted on 01/08/2018

I am a perfectionist. I think I always knew, but I only saw the real impact of this trait when I was going full speed ahead writing my chapters towards my submission deadline. I knew I had to produce work for my supervisors to read stat because I was crunched for time. But I found myself tweaking sentences over and over again to get them to sound just right.

When I finally sent in my chapter and then got it back, it was covered in annotations, questions, comments—all which were perfectly valid of course, but which felt in that first moment of reading as overwhelming and even threatening. It is easy to go into a downward spiral from here, because you can start believing that no matter what you produce, it’s never good enough. But switching our perspective on the concept of ‘good enough’ from negative to positive can actually liberate us from perfectionism. How can we start doing this? How can ‘good enough’ really feel good enough for the recovering perfectionist? Here are two tips that I hope can be helpful.

#1: Perfectionism does not equal to having ‘high standards’

Perfectionism is having an ideal standard in your head, which is really just that—a fantasy. There is no perfect version of a PhD thesis, just as there is no right formula for academic success. Just because you spend one hour marking one undergraduate essay while your colleague breezes through them twenty minutes at a time, this does not mean you’re a failure for not being able to balance all your academic responsibilities perfectly. Everyone has their own unique way of doing things, so spend time trying to find your own groove. Maybe compared to that colleague who stays in the library working for eight hours non-stop, you find that you’re more productive when you have extracurricular activities and fit in your research in between. Maybe you feel better when you let ideas percolate a bit more before putting pen to paper, which is fine, so acknowledge to yourself that you work slower and allow time for that. Discover what works for you, embrace it, and do that. That’s good enough.

#2: Fail Fast

Letting go of the need for your work to be perfect is to accept that failure is part of the package. Oftentimes, sending in your imperfect work—I’ll let you in on a secret, it’s all imperfect—quickly speeds up the learning and revising process. This is because you are also roping in your supervisor to help you think through the areas you’re stuck in: two brains do work better than one. Also remember that you’re neither the perfect nor the only judge of the quality of your PhD. Your supervisor is one; your examiners are another. Ultimately, the PhD is a practical endeavour with concrete requirements for submission—a certain word or page count, a certain level of experimentation—and ‘failing fast’ can get you to that practical measure with the help of your academic mentors. Don’t pressure yourself to know everything. You don’t need to.

Hopefully these two tips will begin to release the stress that perfectionism adds onto you. I also found that Petra Kolber’s TED talk ‘The Perfection Detox’ really gets into the nuts and bolts of perfectionism. If you need a visual reminder and even a mantra of sorts, check out The Cult of Done Manifesto.

Are you a perfectionist? How has perfectionism impacted your PhD and research process so far, negatively and positively? What have you found helpful when dealing with perfectionism? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.

Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training. You can reach her on Twitter @jennywhmak, or through her website

Image: pebbles-balanced-pebbles-water-2020100 / jplenio / CC0 1.0