If you want to build, relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy. You need to become better at listening.
Today communication is more critical than ever. However, devote less time to listening to one another. Genuine listening is the gift of time. It:
- means less wasted time and fewer errors at work
- helps to develop resourceful, self-reliant kids who can solve their problems
- builds friendships and careers
- saves money and relationships
Good listening begins with learning to keep quiet. When we feel heard, we feel closer to the person. However, when we rush to be a part of the conversation, we cut off people with our brilliant contribution. We even try to finish the other person’s sentences.
There's a misconception that when we hear, we listen, however listening is really hard work, and it takes a great deal of concentration.” — Pamela Cooper, VP International Listening Association
Speaking without being heard is frustrating
We have all experienced:
- confiding in a friend as she thumbs through messages on her phone
- telling your spouse about your day as their eyes glaze over
- pitching an idea to a co-worker as he interrupts with his own
They are focusing on something more interesting than you. These situations are annoying and downright hurtful. However, the fact that they happen often is not too surprising.
Most people are very aware that other people don't listen. However, they're not nearly as aware that they themselves don't listen don't presume you're a good listener," — Paul Donoghue, psychologist, co-author "Are You Really Listening? Keys to Successful Communication
Our friends and family and co-workers may be lousy at it. However, what about you — are you a good listener?
Think about your listening (or not-listening) behaviour. Are you that colleague or sibling or friend who never really listens? How many of the poor listening habits listed below do you have? Perhaps ask a friend and get feedback.
- Distracting yourself — Reading a text message, focusing on your Facebook feed, the dog over there or the shopping list you need to make — tells the speaker that those things are more important than what she is.
- Interrupting — This lousy habit is three things: Self-explanatory, rude and a sign that you're not listening.
- Problem finding —"I'm listening, however only enough to find a problem and fix it for you."
- Becoming defensive — If you're the topic of discussion, you might hear criticism that may or may not be there. Moreover, we get defensive. When we are defending, we are not listening.
Be more successful by listening
Listening to others and thoughtfully adding your input is the key to success. Lucky people are present with their eyes wide open and listening to every word that is said. They discover more opportunities than average people do.
When you fail to listen, you alienate yourself from your team and losing out on their excellent ideas. Your ideas, your voice, and your concern with how you appear will cause them to stay silent.
Be aware of the messages you send others. Is your voice the only one that is heard in the room?
Becoming a better listener is a process. It is hard work. When you try to be a better listener, most people will support you. However, even the best listeners sometimes backslide into not paying attention to what people are saying.
Even if you’re mid-sentence, catch yourself — Here I go again, giving advice.” — Paul Donoghue
Being a better listener shows others that you care about their ideas and contributions — at work, socially, or at home. Moreover, you will develop better relationships and have a greater sense of appreciation for the people around you.
Listen to yourself first
Being a good listener requires a generosity of spirit: letting the spotlight shine on other people. How do you know if you are generous?
You lack this generosity when you are in a conversation or a meeting and you:
- agonize that you are not talking when someone else is talking
- are waiting to jump in as soon as someone else to finish talking
- direct the conversation back to yourself
- start every statement with “I,”
Without generosity, you are broadcasting.
Try a little experiment. When you are in groups or meetings, keep track of how often each person speaks. If you are not running the meeting and you are the dominant voice, then everyone hears too much from you.
Falling in love with our ideas is easy. However, it cuts us off from others. People are social. Rich dialogue bonds us. When you talk when you should be listening, people feel you do not care about their ideas. You are not strengthening relationships. You miss out on opportunities.
Take a breath
Psychologist Richard Carlson to take a breath if you have a bad habit of rushing ahead or interrupting the flow of a conversation.
Not an enormous, loud, obvious breath that screams out ‘I am trying a new technique for better listening!’ No, just a normal, simple, ordinary breath. That’s it. The whole technique, right there.”
A simple breath-long inhale, and exhale creates space in a conversation so that both speakers feel heard.
The small bit of silence allows them to explore a bit more, to formulate their thoughts, to reflect further on what they are thinking or feeling. In our everyday lives, most of us are not used to having this moment of space to relax and think about what we really want to say, what we are feeling, and what we might — or might not — want to share.”— Kenneth E. Miller
The breath-long space gives a speaker the chance to listen to what the other person is saying and not saying. Attention to body language and tone is helpful. This pause provides time to nod and stay silent with the emotions involved. Moreover, let the person finish their thought. Do not so quick to share our story when a colleague is starting to share theirs.
An excellent way to become a good listener stop and assume you don’t everything. Instead of making declarative statements, ask thoughtful questions. You likely do not have all the information you need. The breather pause creates time to think of thoughtful questions about what is being said. Learning to challenge assumptions gently may inspire a moment of insight.
In their Harvard Business Review article, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman described their study to identify the characteristics of better listeners. They assessed 3,492 managers in a development program focused on coaching. The excellent listeners knew how to build upon what was already said using thoughtful questions.
Good listeners are active listeners. Moreover, they make concrete suggestions and turn a lecture into productive dialogue. However, if the other person is prevented from getting their words out, this does not occur.
People perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions gently challenge old assumptions, however, do so in a constructive way. Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, however asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, however, that they comprehended it well enough to want additional information. Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialogue, rather than a one-way ‘speaker versus hearer’ interaction. The best conversations were active.” — Zenger and Folkman
In a lecture, you launch words at people. Engaging in rich dialogue requires you understand what they think.
What’s their point of view?
Conversation is a means for two or more people to share information. When you are the only one speaking, you are not learning. Moreover, you create stronger connections with people when you try to understand them and walk in their shoes.
Spend a moment putting yourself in their position, what’s going through their head and what it must be like for them…Understanding what their experience is even before you talk to them [can help you connect with them]. And it sounds bad, however even if you blow it, you’re still better off because the other person will see the attempt.” — Paul Sacco
To show you are trying to understand someone else’s point of view:
- summarize what you just heard
- repeat what they said and ask if you understand it correctly — “You just said you’re unhappy where you are. I hear that you’d like to move on to something else. Is that right?”
At the end of a conversation try to conclude with a summary statement. In discussions that result in agreements about future obligations or activities, summarizing will not only ensure accurate follow-through. It will feel perfectly natural. In communications that do not include agreements, if summarizing may a little awkward. You will get better with practice.
Steps to Effective Listening
Develop active your listening skills with these tips.
Maintain eye contact
Without eye contact, you are trying to hit a moving target. How do you feel when Talking to someone while they scan the room, look at their phone, or gaze out the window when you are trying to connect with them? How much of the person's attention are you getting? If the person is your child, you would likely demand, "Look at me when I'm talking to you." However, it is hard to say in normal conversation.
In Western culture, eye contact is an essential ingredient of effective communication. When we talk, we need to face the speaker and look each other in the eye. Our desire for better connection pulls us together.
Be courteous to your conversational partners:
- turn to face them
- put aside papers, books, devices and other distractions
- look at them, even if they do not look at you
- stay focused
Excuse the other person, as shyness, uncertainty, shame, guilt, or other emotions, along with some cultural norms may inhibit eye contact in some people.
Be relaxed—Stay attentive
When you maintain eye contact, you do want not to stare fixedly at the other person. Moreover, look away now and then, like a reasonable person. It is essential that you be present, attentive, and remain ready to serve. Strive to mentally screen out background activity, noise, other distractions including your thoughts, feelings, or biases.
You need to listen without judging or mentally criticizing the other person. Listen without jumping to conclusions. If what they something that alarms you — feel alarmed. However, don't think “that was a stupid move." Indulge in judgmental bemusements compromises your effectiveness as a listener.
The speaker’s language to represents their thoughts and feelings inside. By listening and observing, you will get insight into their thoughts and feelings.
Do not be a sentence-grabber
I had a bad habit of not slowing my mental pace enough to listen effectively. I would try to speed up the conversation by interrupting and finishing their sentences. While I thought it showed us being in sync, it was often way off base. I would follow my train of thought. I would fail to learn where their ideas were going.
It is almost impossible to reset. Those potential insights are gone forever. I wonder how often folks felt that I was having a conversation by myself! It is so important that we want to hear what the other person has to say.
Picture what the speaker is saying
Creating a mental model of the information that is being communicated helps you stay focused. It could be a picture or an arrangement of abstract concepts. When listening for long stretches, concentrate on keywords and phrases. Your senses are on full alert.
When you listen, avoid spending the time planning what to say next. One cannot rehearse and hear at the same time. Focus on what the other person is saying, even if it bores you. When your thoughts start to drift, immediately force yourself to refocus.
As I kid, I was taught that it is rude to interrupt. Indeed, the many of the guests and some of the hosts on CNN forgot this lesson. There are loud, aggressive, in-your-face behaviour is condoned, if not encouraged. They fight for airtime. We hear repeatedly hear from the speaker “let me finish.” Rarely have a real conversation. It makes me switch channels!
- "I don't have time for your opinion."
- "I'm more important than you are."
- "I don't care what you think."
- "This isn't a conversation. It's a contest. I'm going to win."
- "What I have to offer will be more interesting, accurate or relevant."
We think and speak at different rates of speed. The speed at which we talk has a significant influence on how the audience perceives us. It is essential to understand your speaking rate and how to alter it depending on the type of conversation you are having or speech you are delivering.
Average speech rates — (words per minute (wpm)):
- Conversational: between 120 - 150 wpm
- Presentations: between 100 - 150 wpm for a comfortable pace
- Audiobooks: between 150 - 160 wpm
- Auctioneers: about 250 wpm
- Radio hosts and podcasters: between 150 - 160 wpm
- Commentators: between 250 - 400 wpm
Are you a quick thinker and an agile talker? The relax your pace for the slower, more thoughtful communications.
Provide solutions when asked
Over the years, I played golf with people who would offer “helpful” advice after a bad shot. The good golfers only offered advice when asked. Similarly, when listening to someone talk about a problem, refrain from suggesting solutions.
Most of us do not want your advice. If we do, we will ask for it. We prefer to figure out our solutions. Please listen and help us do that. When you are bursting with a brilliant solution or have faced a similar challenge, get the speaker's permission. Consider asking, "Would you like to hear my ideas/experience?"
When to ask clarifying questions
When you do not understand something, ask the speaker to explain it to you. However, do not interrupt, wait until the speaker pauses. Then say something like, "Could you help me out, I did not understand what you just said about…"
Avoid pivoting the purpose dialogue
A colleague invites you to lunch to talk about her project. She is excitedly telling you about her project and happens to mention she ran into a mutual friend. You interrupt with, "Oh, I haven't heard from him in a long time. How is he doing? Your discussion shifts to your mutual friend and their circumstances, and before you know an hour is gone and you did discuss her project.
This conversational slight happens all the time. Our questions pivot the speaker in directions that have nothing to do with where they thought they were going. Rarely do we work our way back to the original topic.
You do not need to be stiff. However, if you notice that your question has led your colleague astray, take responsibility. Get the conversation back on track by saying something like, "It was great to hear about our mutual friend, however, tell me more about your project."
Get in the speaker’s shoes
If did some training with Mark Bowden, a body language expert. Mark introduced me to the effectiveness of mirroring. Your body has to say the same thing as you are speaking. When you can reflect the speaker’s state of mind—then your effectiveness as a listener is assured. When the speaker:
- expresses sadness feel sad
- exhibits joy feel joyful
- describes her fears feel fearful
You convey these feelings through your facial expressions and words. Empathy is central to active listening.
To express empathy, you must put yourself in the other person's place. Feel what it is like to be her at that moment. This is hard to do—it takes energy and concentration. However, your generosity is helpful. It facilitates communication as nothing else does.
Use evaluative questions
Talking to people is one thing, however, making excellent conversation is another. Mark Bowden uses evaluative questions to master the art of exchange in several everyday situations.
Skipping small talk is difficult. It is a customary form of communication. For example,
- “Great weather, isn’t it? Oh yeah, lovely weather.”
- “How are you doing? I’m fine, thank you.”
Small talk is necessary to get you into the greater conversation. To jump more quickly into the impactful discussion, spend about 10 seconds on customary communication. So, start with, “How are you? I’m doing okay.” This standard question and response are necessary for everyone to feel comfortable. Move straight into evaluative conversation with questions like,
- “What do you think of…?”
- “What’s your opinion on…?”
Meeting new people
Quickly move past basic data questions like who, what, where, when and why; these questions do not make you sound smart as the answers are simple for the person who has the data. More intelligent questions are evaluative questions like “How do you think that event has impacted the industry?” A question like this is going to cause the other person to have to reveal more than just data. It gets them thinking and having to evaluate data. Use “you” and “your” questions that are attached to the bigger picture and move away from data.
Work questions are standard questions much like “How’s the weather?” or “How are you?”
What tends to happen is people get involved in the details of work, like “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” These questions are posed to determine someone’s social position, like “Where do I stand next to this person?” or “Is this person better than me?” It’s a status thing.
Although challenging to avoid the above conversation about work, get into people’s feelings about their work is more effective and exciting. For example, start with something like,” What are you working on now that you’re most interested in?” or, “What do you love about work?”
Talking more emotionally will give you a better idea of other things that person is into and vice versa. Once you have gotten into more passionate ideas, you can take the conversation in different directions that are not so work-focused.
Give regular feedback
By reflecting the speaker's feelings shows that you understand where the speaker is coming from:
- "You must be thrilled!"
- "What a terrible ordeal for you."
- "I can see that you are confused."
When you are unsure what the speaker is feeling, show your understanding by occasionally paraphrase the content of the message, nod, through appropriate facial expressions, and an occasional well-timed "hmmm" or "uh huh."
Provide the speaker with some proof that you are listening and following her train of thought. In task situations, restate instructions and messages to be sure you understand correctly. It confirms that you heard.
Pay attention to the other indicators
If you exclude email, most of the direct communication is probably nonverbal. In the 1960s, Professor Mehrabian combined the statistical results of the two studies and came up with the now famous—and misused— a rule that communication is only seven percent verbal. The 93 percent non-verbal component was made up of body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent).
More to the point, Professor Mehrabian concluded that for inconsistent or contradictory communications, body language and tonality might be better indicators of meaning and emotions than the words themselves. However, he never intended the results to apply to normal conversation or speeches.
However, we can glean a great deal of information about each other without saying a word. Even over the telephone, tone and cadence, tells you a lot about a person.
You can detect enthusiasm, boredom, or irritation very quickly when you are face to face. The expression around the speaker's eyes, the set of their mouth, the slope of their shoulders provide the indicators. These are clues you should not ignore. When listening, remember that words convey only a portion of the message.
No one is a perfect listener. You can improve. The benefits of active listen far exceed the effort. Moreover, realize when you are not listening and fix it. If you find your attention has drifted and you were not actively listening, be honest with whoever is talking. Communicate that yes, you are interested, however, that you got a bit off track, so please repeat that last part.
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