You will go most of your life wearing mental earplugs, and you will never really listen to most of what you hear. You will be like a soldier in enemy territory who shoots first and asks questions later. Even now your defenses are up and your suspicions armed, but you're doing that for good reason: most of the world is full of bullshit. But everything you hear is true in its own context: everything someone says they either believe or want you to believe, and so everything you hear is now divided into two easily conquerable groups. If you trust your ability to judge then you can just listen and make up your mind when it's time to make up your mind. Because the difference between the former and the latter is the difference between a mistake and a lie, not between fact and falsehood. Someone who thinks they're lying might actually be telling the truth.
Every speaker has problems, though. Figure out what their problems are and you have a way to use what you hear.
It is simply that most people aren't professional speakers and haven't learned how to quench doubt, so they'll talk in reservations and qualifications and mint disclaimers until the currency has no value. They have no confidence in their position, and this is what they will do:
Ironically these are the most trustworthy. They doubt themselves because they're so critical of themselves, but this process of self criticism is actually the process by which truth is found. You'll hear this kind of talk from scientists--in spirit, if not profession--because they are swimming in information that can overwhelm them. They're young, they're old, they're blue-collar and college graduates. Their dedication to logic is what matters.
They need pressure to divulge their gut feelings, and it's worth applying it. If they're for real then they'll come back to you with reservations and doubts because they haven't been able to sleep at night.
There is something else on their plate, but it might not be cause for deception. All you know is that they want to get rid of you, and they'll talk like this:
Your instincts should have your defenses up fast, but this is an opportunity for analysis: what are they distracted by? Nine times out of ten the distraction is directly relevant to what you're trying to talk to them about. "How's the project going?" you say, "Fine. Just fine. I'll send you a report soon." they say. Something is wrong. People who are confident and in control have no problem talking about their work with detail. The confident will wax rhapsodic about their problems like they were meatballs in their spaghetti. If they won't explain like they were trying to teach you something important to them, if they won't rub their chin and lean back in their chair before iterating their concerns then they are hiding something. You should not drill them, you should start listening to other people who are involved. Gather more information from different sources.
Or on drugs, or stressed out, or sleep deprived, or in love. All three have chemical effects on the brain and distort intention as well as meaning.
Step carefully, because the speaker has lost perspective and can't judge objectively anymore. He might also start throwing punches.
Drunkards sober up in the morning, so give them enough time to do so. Lovers have arguments. Geeks go gaga over technology, but then try to build something. Managers spray their pants for methodologies, but get called to the carpet when they fail. Musicians and designers fall head-over-heels for a trend, but shun them in a hurry before their friends do. And even politicians lose their shit for a deal. In the morning things look different.
The speaker wants to convey something, but they don't know the best word for it. This is very common because the language is vast and not everybody hungers to learn it. Some of the signs are:
Danger Will Robinson. Danger. He knows how people judge each other and has rehearsed his act. There's no point in listing their immediate behaviors because they are actors and will chose their stage presence consciously. So instead I must list the defenses:
They don't teach conversation in high-school. It's an art. It's a difficult art and it's not on the SAT. They want to convey something but they need to find common ground with you first, and you have a very interesting geography. You didn't watch the same TV show, so that metaphor didn't work. You groove to a different sport, so that whole shit about bullying with hockey sticks didn't stick. Well, damn! What is one to say anyway?
The key to understanding is similarity, so the best way to understand someone is to know some of the same things they know. The more you share with them is the more you'll know about them. Yet even if you don't share much popular culture with them, you still share the fact that you're human. Assume they're intelligent and trade metaphors with them. Explain yours and encourage them to explain theirs. Remember or write down the daft shit and wait, wait until you've had a chance to Google for the silly cultural reference they were alluding to. When you do, your mind will explode.
Even the guy on television. Even the director of the movie. Even the author of the essay you're reading. In their minds was an idea and you may not have received it the way it was intended. They just don't know because you are not like what they thought.
Ask questions. "Did you mean this?" or "Were you talking about X?" or "I think I missed something, could you say that again?" In the latter case most people understand that you want them to say it differently because you had doubts about your interpretation. They should plumb the mental depths of their model and pull something out of their ass that just might jibe. If they fail, don't lose your patience.
You'll hear something and conclude the author wants to be your enemy, yet you'd be wrong: people don't want to be enemies unless it aids them.
What else do they want? Perhaps they want you to fit in with their ideal society, or perhaps they want you to buy something. Either way they fear that you'll shun or attack them, so at the very least you should show them that you're willing to listen. The act of listening alone has incredible power; give them the hint that you could be on their side and they will open up like a book.
I spite of Rule 3 the odds are that the speaker wants the same things that you do, but he just has a different mental model of the way that things work. Republicans are Democrats with a different idea of how to get the same results, and vice versa.
Find out where they see things. Perspective is the same thing as opinion, and it's all about what keeps you alive. People chose sides based on family, friends, religion, where they work and where they live. An auto-worker in Michigan is going to have a vastly different perspective than a programmer in Silicon Valley, even if they both have the same ideals.
The above isn't a manual, it's just a catalog meant to stir introspective thoughts like what your stake is and what the other person's stake looks like. But there is a personal competitive advantage in life to listening properly, and it means being open minded. As final tips: