Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane have written an interesting article for Fast Company about how to become a better listener. Pollack and Cabane explain how our mind works while we are listening to others. They argue that we "mentalize" while we listen. Here's their description of this important, but perhaps highly flawed, sense-making process.
When we listen, we don’t just hear a person’s words, we try and put those words into context. Neuroscientists call this "mentalizing," the ability to understand another person’s internal motivations and desires. When we hear a person’s words, we also try to imagine why they're saying them. And some of us do this more successfully than others.
What's the problem? Well, when we mentalize, we often make assumptions about others. A variety of factors may shape those assumptions (our own beliefs about a subject, the appearance of others, the other party's background or prior statements, etc.). Unfortunately, those assumptions may not always be correct. The other party may be motivated by something quite different than we have presumed. If we are incorrect about their motivations, then we may miss vital information that the other party is trying to convey, or we might misinterpret something that they have said.
How do we become better listeners? First, we have to question our assumptions about others. Ask yourself: What am I presuming about the other party's motivations and desires? How might I interpret their statements differently if my assumptions are incorrect? Second, we have to engage in thoughtful inquiry. We have to ask non-threatening questions to try to unearth and understand the other party's goals, interests, and desires.