Not long ago I was reflecting on a conversation that I had with my spouse. I thought that I had not been a very good listener in a conversation that we had about an hour earlier. Knowing that she was in the next room, I called out to her, “Stephanie, I was thinking about that conversation we just had, and I was thinking I need to apologize for not listening or giving you my full attention when you were talking. Will you forgive me?” She responded, “For which time?” I thought I had blown it, but I had no idea of how bad of a listener I had been. That is the problem. Most of us think that we are average to good listeners. Unfortunately, that is the status we all occupy in our own mind.
Most of the time what gets in the way of being an effective listener is our thoughts. We have this little voice in our head that is constantly judging, evaluating, criticizing, analyzing, and editorializing everything that we hear. When I did research among a number of managers and asked them why they didn’t listen, they gave the following explanations for not listening:
“Sometimes I listen to see if I agree or not.”
“I usually am thinking about what I should say in response.”
“I listen to understand if what the person is saying will have a negative impact on me.”
“I don’t listen to some people because I already know what they are going to say.”
“I know I don’t listen because I am thinking more about what I am thinking than to what the person is saying.”
Notice in all of these responses, the individual is preoccupied with their thoughts. When this happens, they are obviously not listening nor capturing the sum total of the messages that are being sent.
Here are some easy-to-use strategies that will help you become a fantastic listener.
1. Recognize and suspend your thinking. If your thinking is a distraction, then you must learn to manage the voice in your head. Recognize that the little voice is competing for airtime and set it aside. If you can’t do it, it would be better to excuse yourself from the conversation and reschedule when you can give your full attention. Listening and attending to others is not something that you can fake until you make it. People know when you are not present.
2. Don’t assume anything. If you find yourself making negative judgments about what the other person is saying, shift to asking questions that will confirm or disconfirm your thinking. For example you might ask, “What data led you to that assumption? or Help me understand how you came to your opinion.” Asking good questions will add depth to your understanding and a richness of learning about the individual. This won’t happen if you make assumptions and never ask a question. Ask yourself, “What will I miss if I don’t ask?”
3. Eliminate distractions. We are so preoccupied with the use of electronic gadgets today. It is a wonder that anyone can give their full attention to another individual. Close your laptop and silence your phone and put them outside your reach. Giving your attention to a person and then allowing your electronic devices to interrupt the conversation is highly disrespectful. You wouldn’t want to be interrupted by someone answering their email or an incoming text in the middle of a conversation that you wanted to hold. Do people the service of giving them your full attention.
4. Demonstrate good body language. Use clusters of nonverbal behaviors to show interest in what people are saying. For example, mirror the eye contact that is being given to you by the person who is speaking. Lean slightly toward the person to show interest. Use your hands in a gesture of making an offer when sharing an idea, or gesture with your fingers that you want to hear more. Sit on the same level as the person to whom you are speaking. Turn your body to face the person and allow for ample spacing so that they will feel comfortable. Using your body to demonstrate interest in what the other person is saying will put the other person at ease and communicate that what they have to share is important to you.
5. Clarify your understanding. At any time during the conversation, don’t hesitate to summarize what you believe you have heard. Doing so demonstrates that you are trying to understand the individual. Don’t worry if the person tells you that you have not entirely understood what they were saying. They will correct any misinterpretations that you may have made. What is important is that you demonstrate your interest while checking the clarity of your understanding.
6. Listen more than you speak. We were given two ears and one mouth. We ought to listen twice as much as we speak. As you listen, don’t steal the other person’s talking turn. Stealing a turn occurs when you grab the focus of the conversation away from the speaker and then share your experiences or stories to compliment the message of the speaker. People with different conversation styles may do this as a way of establishing common ground. But such behavior is usually looked upon as disrespectful. If you are not asking questions to deepen the conversation or to clarify your understanding by summarizing, then you are probably talking too much. Additionally, those who are more assertive frequently cut people off or finish their sentences. Such behavior is also not acceptable.
7. Be patient. Learning to listen and give your full attention to another person is not easy, even for a practiced listener. Learning to give your full attention to someone over a longer period of time if you are preoccupied with other things requires patience and focus. Before you listen to another, you would do well to assess the amount of time you can give to listen to an individual. If you realize that you may not have the time because of other concerns, then schedule a time when you will have the time. For example, you might say, “This is a really important conversation and I would like to talk about it more. Unfortunately I have another meeting scheduled in a few minutes. Would it be alright if we picked up the conversation when I return?” You need to take responsibility to manage your listening more effectively.
8. Ask for meaning. One strategy that will help you become a more effective listener is to realize that there is meaning behind the feelings, words, and actions that people express or display. If you are in doubt about the meaning of a person’s message, then ask for additional explanation. For example, if you observed that someone seems to become defensive, you might say, “I am noticing that you are beginning to become upset. Tell me why.” Or if someone said something that you didn’t understand, you might offer, “After the meeting I heard you say, ‘Oh great! Now what are we supposed to do?!’ Can you tell me what you mean by that?” What is important is for you to observe what people are feeling, saying, and doing, and then try to gain further understanding about what all of that means. Notice that this skill really requires that you give your full attention to the person and notice what messages they are displaying. The challenge is uncovering the meaning hidden behind the message.
9. Apologize when in doubt. It is not difficult to become unconsciously conscious in a moment and quit listening and attending. If someone calls you on your behavior, admit your distraction, apologize, and reengage. Offering a heart-felt apology will go a long way to building your relationships and establishing your sincerity.
Becoming a fantastic listener requires skill and practice. It also requires a degree of awareness on your part of where and with whom you need to improve your listening ability. We don’t intentionally go out of our way not to listen to people. We must realize that becoming an exceptional listener requires a conscious and deliberate effort to understand and connect with others. After all, everyone wants to know that they are heard and understood.
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