The Holy Grail of Social Listening

Throughout history, good conversation has been highly valued but what are the attributes of a good conversationalist? The ability to listen, rather than eagerly searching for the next opportunity to interject, is certainly one of them. Peter Hudson sets out on a quest to find the Holy Grail of social listening and discovers the old Cuban proverb rings very true;“Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world.”

Bore, counsellor or tennis opponent?

When you are at a party what would you prefer? An endless tale of achievements, interests, pastimes and so on from someone (usually a bloke) who never stops talking – the party bore; or someone who asks you questions and shows some interest in what you are doing, someone who is prepared to have a two-way conversation? Put like that I guess there is really only one answer. So why is it that the former is so much more common than the latter? The broad answer is simple – natural listeners are really quite rare!
Conversation 2

If you are a trained listener the skills can be useful in social settings as well as professional ones. You don’t have to go into full counselling mode – that might have entirely the wrong outcome! Showing interest in the other person by asking a simple and relevant question and then a couple of follow up questions is a tremendous way of starting. Showing interest really makes an impression. You might call this the quasi counselling approach.

Jessica isn't getting involved in this discussionYou might think that you do that already. If so that’s great and you might just be one of those rare natural listeners. On the other hand, if you’re one of the huge majority who aren’t, you might listen long enough to hear something that really interests you at which point you’ll start talking about your version of what the other person is talking about. At this point the conversation can often turn into a verbal tennis match, each of you batting back a different aspect of the subject across the net, always thinking of the next opportunity to get in a classy shot!

Don’t get me wrong, this is not always a bad thing. At least you have gone beyond the party bore and are talking about something in which you both have an interest. But tennis matches are competitive affairs, whether on the tennis court or at a party, and so there nearly always has to be a winner. Wouldn’t it be better all round if we could find a way of enabling each other to develop her/his thoughts a little further and taking it in turns to have the limelight? Well, of course it would but it’s not easy to achieve.

The Holy Grail

John-Cleese-and-Graham-Chapman-taking-a-break-on-the-Set-of-Monty-Python-and-the-Holy-GrailWhat exactly is it that we want to achieve? What is the Holy Grail of social listening? Perhaps mutual attentive listening sums it up. Why is it so difficult to achieve? That’s fairly hard to answer although logically I guess it probably has something to do with the rarity of natural or indeed trained listeners. Trying the quasi counselling approach can be fun at first, if you’re not too obvious about it.

You can help the other person go a bit deeper than she/he might otherwise do and, of course, it saves you from having to come up with interesting ideas of your own! But after a while it can become a cause of resentment: why can’t someone help me explore things? How can I reach mutual attentive listening?

I have been in search of it over many years. One funny example was in a staff room in a school in south-east London where I had been teaching listening skills. I overheard the following: Hey Karen, can you give me a ‘Peter Hudson’; there’s something I really need to talk through and work out? So the lesson might be that you have to ask for it. But even this wasn’t mutual and it was more professional than social so still not quite there!

Monty-Python-Holy-Grail-Behind-the-scenes-6So all you knights and knightesses, go out in search of the Holy Grail of mutual attentive listening. And if you find it or achieve it please tell me how it came about and your reward will be great – we’ll publish your findings!

Peter Hudson

For more about Peter’s training course,   Listening skills for teachers see

You may also like