How to Listen Like
How to listen like Barack Obama
October 29, 2021
October 29, 2021
Barack Obama is a born listener. No, really. He was literally born as a good listener.
Obama recalled in a 2015 BBC interview, “You know there’s a place in Hawaii, Hanauma Bay, which is now a natural preserve. But it’s a beautiful coral reef, and my mother, she always says that the reason I’m calm is because when she was pregnant with me she used to go down to this bay and sit and listen to the water.”
Listening ꟷ whether it’s to the waves or the person across the table from you right now – has a direct impact on our relationships, our engagements, and how we live our lives. Like Obama, listening can have a calming effect. Being a good listener can also bring on the benefits of building trust, likeability, and respect with those around you.
President Barack Obama has held many prominent roles in his lifetime and a key part of his success is that he is an active listener. He gives his full attention to what he is hearing and tries to completely understand, and comprehend, what is being said. You don’t need to be the President of the United States to be a good listener, but you can pick up some helpful tips from him.
Obama spoke at Howard University's commencement ceremony on May 7, 2016. In his speech he stated, “Change requires more than just speaking out—it requires listening as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree and being prepared to compromise.”
Obama shared the example of when he was working to pass Illinois's first racial profiling law as a State Senator. He had to engage and listen to law enforcement in order to build consensus around the law. Obama felt it was important to listen to the other side while also not compromising his own integrity and core values. He succeeded by following this advice, “If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they are wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”
While he was President, Obama received 65,000 letters each week from constituents across the country. He asked his staff to review the thousands of emails and handwritten notes and pick 10 of them that best represented the stories and concerns of everyday Americans. The President would then make it his goal to try to read and respond to these 10 letters each day.
The letters resonated with Obama and he was known to have visited letter writers in their hometowns. He would often reference letters in his speeches because he had listened, and he remembered. Listening doesn’t always have to come in the verbal form. Words on a page can just as powerfully convey a message as words spoken out loud.
The dedication of Obama’s new memoir A Promised Land states “To Michelle — my love and life’s partner and Malia and Sasha — whose dazzling light makes everything brighter." When Malia was born, Barack made a promise to always put his family first. This is largely because his own father had been absent from much of his childhood.
The first word in Obama’s Twitter profile isn’t “President” but “Dad.” Obama always made a point of having dinner with his family every night during his time in the White House. In his book he discloses, “While serving as President, I made sure to have dinner with Michelle, Sasha, and Malia every evening by 6:30. We’d eat some good meals and catch up on our days. That was one of the best parts of living above the store, as I sometimes called it.” His intent to not only be present, but also engaged, shows that Obama made an ongoing effort to listen to his family.
Listening to authority can be a challenge even when you are the President of the United States. Obama’s Secret Service code name was Renegade. Occasionally Renegade would try to break free from the White House, much to the chagrin of the Secret Service. He would go on rogue missions for “normal people things” like getting a sandwich ꟷ often to the delight of nearby tourists.
Challenges to authority happen everywhere from parenting of little kids to dealing with colleagues in the workplace. We often don’t want to listen when someone with power has control over us. And when you hold one of the highest offices in the land, it must be tricky to defy the Secret Service that is supposed to be keeping Renegade in line.
We all can’t be born a good listener like Obama, but we can grow at being one. Learning good listening skills doesn’t involve spending years of study and practice. It is a simple ability that takes minimal time and effort to excel at. By following these few tips and implementing them in your life you will naturally evolve into a better listener.
Oh, good you’re still with us! If you’ve made it this far, then you must be truly listening.
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