What it Really Means to Be a Good Listener

Most people know Time Feris for his extremely popular books “the four-hour workweek”, or “tools of titans”. They have sold many millions of copies all around the world and they all provide for the super-meticulous and methodological way of self-development that only Tim Feris knows how to manage.

When I first read the 4-hour workweek, I was struck by this completely new and original world that no one else had thought to write about anything previously. Self-development was mostly obsessed with empty ideals and motivation like how you need to be passionate and confident and it would suffice to assert that anyone can achieve success as long as he is willing to dream big.

Yet Tim opened up a new world on how you can improve your life by thinking about the logistics and reducing the clutter and not only did he offer ideas but you could see this world through the eyes of someone that did the deeds himself and put the theory to the test by talking from personal experience instead of generalities.

When I first introduced to his podcast I found it to be just another ordinary podcast in the line that would be perfect to hear while jogging or taking a walk. In most of the episodes, Tim would stand behind, ask only the minimal amount of questions to keep the guest going and he wouldn’t intervene unless to note something interesting or intriguing on what was said.

What I realized after I listened to a few of them was that the whole series had a common pattern where all guests were somehow lured into opening up about themselves as if people who had been captivated by a magician. It wasn’t so much that they would share their deepest secrets or something they shouldn’t have said publicly but you would always get the feeling they were talking about the thing they cared the most.

Now that may seem commonplace at first but the reality is that if you listen to most other podcasts you come to realize that the guests don’t really talk about what they want to talk about but about what the host wants them to talk about which is what they think the audience wants to listen to from a particular guest.

Recently I watched a series of classes by David Mamet in MasterClass where he is analyzing the art or writing from his experience of doing and in particular the art of writing drama which is what he is most experienced in. This is a really astonishing class where you can get the depths he has reached in his craft over the years and his chase for excellence in the field.

He talks about how you should remove all the clutter from your writing, how to bring it down to the mere minimum, and sculpt your piece with extreme care to keep only the things that matter, and in general how to move the story forward in a way that keeps the viewer interested. He is incredible in his teaching and it is obvious by watching him how deeply he cares about his art and how seriously he is taking all aspects of it.

I was supremely intrigued by his views and looked upon his past interview where I found one he had done with Charlie Rose. A formidable interviewer with a format that is supposed to dig deep into the thoughts of an individual and I embarked to watch it excited at the finding. Yet after only a few minutes, I realized that all the questions were shallow and restrictive like shots of babble that left little room to say anything interesting.

The interview would go like this:

- Define yourself for me. What is your attitude about life?
- My attitude about life is I’m thrilled to be alive.
- Is the first line of the obituary “Writer” or “Playwright?
- I think “Writer”
- Where does the image of David Mamet come from?
- I have no idea.
- What do you think it is?
- I get to sit by myself all day and write. Then I go home and hang out with my family and sleep and do it again the next day.
- And what is it that you write about?

And it went on like that in an interview that felt like a punch in the stomach where the guest didn’t have the chance to speak at all about what he cared about. I was actually dumbfounded at the fact that a person with so much to say about and so many intriguing perspectives on things was pigeon-holed into a corner without having any way out of it. The whole session lacked the proper ground for the interviews to step on and bring forwards what they cared most. And this was what viewers would be most interested in and not the pointless jabber of limited questions.

If it so happens to listen to a podcast from Tim Feris you will encounter the following fact. Tim will be taciturn yet extremely effective in his speech. He will intervene to give the ground to his guests to talk about what they want to talk about and it is quite evident from the start that he goes into the interview without any sort of agenda about it. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t done his research on the guest but that he can get through the end of the interview without speaking about certain topics and he wouldn’t mind much if it was for the person sitting across him to speak on what is important to him.

This little point is what makes the difference between giving enough space to the people across you and limiting them in the particular concepts you have of them. Being a good listener is all about tuning in with someone, listening to what he really craves as is it reveals in between the lines, synchronizing with him on what he tries to express that is not fully verbalized yet, and helping him get into that space. Listening is an extremely dynamic process and requires more mental energy than actually doing the talk.

This space is what allows Tim’s guests to be so talkative about their thoughts and patterns. You listen to them and you get the feeling that you are standing all together in a small cafe that you have a friendly, honest chat without any of the pretentious yappings of people trying to keep their image intact. And this is the reason the podcast has been such a huge success being one of the top, in subscribers and views every time.

Being a good listener is something everyone thinks he gets right yet most are doing totally wrong. We’ll think about that inching question that is bothering our minds, while the other person is talking and we’ll wait for the right time to talk about it, directing the course of the conversation accordingly. We will think of our answers ahead of time trying to prepare our responses or secretly judge and examine the points the other person is making putting labels and criticizing them.

During all these processes we are actually missing out on what we have in front of us and this will lead consequently to missing the opportunity to create that space of trust, as the signs of aversion, will inadvertently pop up and show one way or the other and creating a breach between the two parties.

So it’s always good to have a real example of what being a good listener really looks like and Tim is doing a great job of being the embodiment of it. It’s time to realize that listening is not a passive process but an active one and we have to put a great effort if we are to really attune with the people in our environment.

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