Sex, Food, and Self-Disclosure: Why Active Listening is so Hard

Jim Morgan's picture

An exercise at the end of my active listening skills class always produces an interesting insight into human behavior.

The participants are paired off with people they do not know and provided questions to ask each other, like:

  • “What is your hometown?”
  • “What do you do during the workday?”
  • “What is your earliest memory?”

Drawing a diagram to illustrate the instructions, I explain that one person will primarily ask questions. That person should say little phrases to indicate they are listening (“I see”), but otherwise the listener’s job is to “just listen.” After that, I tell them, you will reverse roles. The former listener will ask questions, and the former asker will talk about themselves, again for five minutes. Building rapport is not the goal; understanding the other person is. This is a meditation on the other person’s words.

Inevitably at the end of the first five minutes, at least one pair will be shocked to learn we are doing another round… that they were not supposed to take turns for five minutes. Or an asker will say they couldn’t stop themselves from sharing. Even listeners who do it right, I observe as I walk around eavesdropping, often disclose information about themselves. If the talker talks about Memphis, the listener might respond with, “Oh, really? I’ve been to Memphis. I had so much fun!” Under the rules of the exercise, “Oh, really,” was sufficient.

One point of the exercise is that the hardest part of active listening is not the physical behaviors I touch on but other classes often focus on (look at the person, paraphrase, etc.). The hardest part is keeping your mind focused on the speaker. In fact, when delivering the class at nonprofits, I propose that one of the greatest gifts you can give another person is both the cheapest and the hardest to give: undivided, ego-less attention.

Now I know why. A series of studies getting some notice in the media found we receive the same kind of thrill from talking about ourselves that we do from good food and sex.

Two psychology researchers at Harvard University, Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell, were intrigued by evidence that we spend a lot of time talking about ourselves. “Studies of human conversation have documented that 30–40% of everyday speech is used to relay information to others about one’s private experiences or personal relationships, and recent surveys of Internet use indicate that upwards of 80% of posts to social media sites (such as Twitter) consist simply of announcements about one’s own immediate experiences,” they write.

Tamir and Mitchell also knew that brain scientists have identified the parts of the brain that fire up when good things happen to us, for example the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA). These release a hormone called “dopamine” which helps create a feeling of happiness or well-being. Tamir and Mitchell say this part of the brain “responds robustly to primary rewards such as food; secondary rewards such as money… and even social rewards such as learning that others share one’s opinion, experiencing humor, or catching a brief glimpse of an attractive member of the opposite sex.” How, then, they wondered, would these areas respond when a person talked about themselves?

They conducted a series of studies in which people were hooked up to a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine taking pictures of the participants’ brains while answering:

  • Questions about themselves or their opinions,
  • The same questions about someone else, or in some studies,
  • Neutral facts like who painted the Mona Lisa.

In some studies, participants were told their answers would be observed by another person. As you probably guessed, answering questions about themselves lit up the NAcc and VTA like Times Square compared to the response when answering about others or facts. The response was even stronger when the subjects knew someone would see the responses—that they would be sharing about themselves with others.

In some of the studies, prices were put on the questions. You could earn between one and four cents depending on which question you were willing to answer. Granting that is not much money, it’s still telling that on average, folks chose to give up 1/3 of the total they could have received so they could answer questions about themselves instead of other people. This led to one of the saddest and funniest lines I ever read in a study (not that there’s much competition): “Just as monkeys are willing to forgo juice rewards to view dominant groupmates and college students are willing to give up money to view attractive members of the opposite sex, our participants were willing to forgo money to think and talk about themselves.”

The reason we find it hard to shut up and truly listen to an employee or colleague is because we get the equivalent of a food high when we talk about ourselves and our opinions instead. But this also points to the importance of forcing ourselves to listen. By letting an employee or co-worker talk about their needs, you are providing them that same reward. In normal economic times surveys consistently show that compensation is fourth or fifth on the list of reasons someone remains satisfied with their job. That’s because people are willing to give up money if they feel they are treated well. One way to create that feeling is active listening, which I define as focusing your attention and energy on understanding the other person correctly before responding. I’ve observed many times in my team coaching that people are far more accepting of decisions they don’t agree with if they feel their opinions were heard and sincerely considered—if they feel they were “listened to.”

Now we know why. It’s all about the high, baby.

Action Item: The next time an employee or co-worker asks if you have a moment to talk, say “yes.” (If you’re minutes from a deadline, set an appointment for right after.) Then shut up. Do not say more than two words at once—little phrases to show you are listening—until they stop talking and ask for your input. “What do you think?” is your cue to get your own dopamine reward.

Source: Tamir, D., and J. Mitchell (2012), “Disclosing Information about the Self is Intrinsically Rewarding,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America; published ahead of print May 7, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1202129109.


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