If You Have This Quality, It Means You Are A Good Listener

Psychologist Michal Lehmann discusses the benefits of humility for both the speaker and the listener in tough conversations.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 21, 2022

A new study published in the Journal Of Positive Psychology explains how listening closely and attentively increases the level of humility in a conversation and creates a positive feedback loop of increased humility and better listening.

I recently spoke with psychologist Michal Lehmann from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to understand why better listening is essential to humility. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the relationship between humility and being a good listener, how did you study it, and what did you find?

After I gave birth to my first daughter, I had many feelings simultaneously: happiness, sadness, and anxiety.

I remember lying down in my bed at night, thinking and ruminating about dealing with being a new mother and with these feelings. And all of a sudden, it hit me: I don't control everything, and I am part of something much bigger than myself.

I remember feeling some relief, and it made me wonder what was there, in that thought, that caused this relief. As a researcher, I decided to read and try to understand what it was, and I found it was humility — the understanding that one is not the center of this world and there are things greater than the self.

After discovering that this magic was humility, I was interested in finding ways to increase people's momentary humility. 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.

The lab I was working at found that attitude complexity increases when one experiences high-quality listening. Therefore, we generalized this finding to humility and hypothesized that listening would increase humility.

We tested this hypothesis with different experimental designs. We found that, indeed, listening increases the state of humility of both parties in the conversation: the listener and the speaker, but especially the listener.

Your research states the differences between interpersonal and intrapersonal humility. Could you briefly describe these concepts?

  • Interpersonal humility refers to observable behaviors that are considered humble, such as: acknowledging others' strengths and contributions, 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.

Between interpersonal and intrapersonal humility, is one inherently better to have or plays a more important role than the other?

It is difficult to determine what type of humility is more important. I believe both types are inseparable, and one cannot exist without the other. Theoretically, we distinguish between them. Yet, in reality, they co-exist.

I think that inherently, one cannot be humble intrapersonally without being humble interpersonally.

In what situations might someone's humility be less prominent?

Humility is most challenged in unpleasant situations, such as conflict, aggression, or fights. I believe it is also challenged in competitive states and when resources are limited. These situations may seem rare, but people often encounter them in a work setting (e.g., competing to get the supervisor's attention or a desired promotion).

What are the disadvantages of being a bad listener?

Being a poor listener will affect the quality of relationships one can build with others. In other words, being a poor listener will cause one's closest relationships to be superficial and not as meaningful.

Not listening to our significant others means knowing less about their lives and being less involved, affecting the quality of their relationships.

Moreover, poor listening is associated with poor performance. Salespeople who listen poorly sell less; physicians who listen poorly are more likely to be sued for malpractice; managers who listen poorly are less likely to have subordinates who want to follow them.

In your opinion, is there such a thing as a person having 'too much' humility?

Probably. I think that although humility is important and beneficial both for the humble person and their environment, it may come with a price.

For example, if someone hides important accomplishments for being humble, it may affect their status and prestige, in the sense that people will not recognize them as they should.

Still, 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 in any case, always be sensitive about the others around them and their possible responses.

In addition, peers and supervisors may take advantage of humble people in some situations and not necessarily reciprocate favorably to such behaviors. Therefore, I think people should choose wisely with whom to express humility.

What practical advice do you have for individuals wanting to be a better listener?

Don't be afraid of silence.

People are often afraid or embarrassed by moments of silence during conversations. Silent moments are essential for building a good conversation. Allow yourself to be silent, to enable the other to speak.

In addition, to become a good listener, one needs to believe in the benefits of listening. Therefore, I recommend getting familiar with the advantages of listening for both parties of the conversation (the listener and the speaker).

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

What was particularly interesting was that listening affected the humility of the listener in particular. While we predicted that different mechanisms affect the humility of the listener versus the speaker, we did not expect a systematically stronger effect on the listener.

We also predicted that listening would increase the listener's reflective self-awareness (the ability to reflect on one's feelings and thoughts). However, we found that listening decreased the listener's reflective self-awareness in some of the experiments. Though it is too early to know the actual effect, that was surprising.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on humility and active listening go in the future?

I would like to see how the effect listening has on humility has additional downstream effects on relationships' duration, and employees' creativity and performance.

In addition, we are currently testing whether an MBA listening course for managers affects their humility more than other courses. These findings may help develop a practical intervention for increasing humility within the general population and organizations. It's already been established that humility is beneficial for all levels of the organization: employees, teams, and the firm. Thus, our work may show how listening training can produce these benefits.