Want To Be A Better Listener? Practice Humility, Say Psychologists
A new study shows how humility and being a good listener go hand in hand.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 1, 2022
A new study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology finds that listening carefully and attentively increases the level of humility in any conversation, resulting in a positive feedback loop of increased humility and better listening.
To explain the inspiration for the study, lead author Michal Lehmann of Hebrew University of Jerusalem recounts the overwhelming emotions she went through as a new parent. She claims that humility, or the revelation that she wasn't the center of the world but a part of something much greater, gave her relief and helped her step up to the challenges of parenthood without fear.
"After discovering that the magic was humility, I was interested in finding ways to increase people's momentary humility," explains Lehmann. "Because humility is also the ability to view the complexities of the self and the world, I thought that anything that increases complex views would increase humility."
Lehmann's lab had done some preliminary research showing that attitude complexity increases when someone engages in high-quality listening. Therefore, they hypothesized that high-quality listening would also increase humility.
The researchers tested this hypothesis with different experimental designs and found that, indeed, listening increased the state of humility of both parties in the conversation: the listener and the speaker, but especially the listener.
Specifically, their research focused on two types of humility:
- Interpersonal humility refers to observable behaviors that are considered humble, such as acknowledging others' strengths and contributions, an openness to feedback, and a general orientation towards the needs of others.
- Intrapersonal humility refers to one's ability to view the self accurately, including both one's strengths and shortcomings, and recognizing the self's fallibility.
"I believe both types of humility are inseparable and one cannot exist without the other," says Lehmann.
According to Lehmann, being an unskilled or poor listener might affect one's life in a few ways. She mentions two:
- Quality of relationships. Being a poor listener might cause one's closest relationships to be shallow and lack meaningfulness.
- Quality of performance. Being a poor listener can affect the quality of the service you provide as you might not be on the same page as your team, stakeholders, or clients. For example, salespeople who listen poorly have poor sales numbers, physicians who listen poorly are more likely to be sued for malpractice, and managers who listen poorly are less likely to have subordinates who want to follow them.
Conversely, Lehmann highlights situations where excessive humility might be costing the individual rather than helping them, such as when an individual hides important accomplishments in pursuit of being humble.
"I think people should be smart about the best timing to talk about their accomplishments and strengths — not hide them on the one hand, and definitely not brag about them, and always be sensitive about the others around them and their possible responses," says Lehmann.
Peers and supervisors may take advantage of people with humility in some situations and not necessarily reciprocate favorably to such behaviors, warns Lehmann.
For people who want to become better listeners, Lehmann has the following advice:
- Don't be afraid of silence. According to Lehmann, silent moments are essential for building a good conversation. Allow yourself to be silent to enable the other person to speak.
- Believe in the benefits of listening. Lehmann recommends getting familiar with the advantages of listening for both parties of the conversation (the listener and the speaker) so that one might feel motivated to become a better listener.
A full interview with psychologist Michal Lehmann discussing her new research on humility and listening can be found here: If you have this quality, it means you are a good listener