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Give the Gift of Listening

We all love to be heard. We can feel understood, validated, and truly connected in the presence of a good listener.  It is not easy to listen in our times of excessive stimuli, noisy environments, and shorter attention spans. But the benefit of human connection and deeper understanding makes it worth the effort.  What makes a good listener, and how can we give that gift to others? A recent anonymous survey of my professional network highlights elements of skillful and unskillful listening plus we can learn from experts.

Survey comments aptly express what we intuitively know about skillful listening.

“They are looking at you directly in the eyes and are engaged by asking questions that pertain to the information you are delivering or offering the advice you are asking for.”

“For deep listening, I tend to listen for my words, repeated back in their own words, but not with my prompting.”

We also have a good sense when others are not listening, or we are not fully listening.

“They are looking away or have a distracted look in their eyes.”

“They jump immediately to a story or example about them.”

“I catch myself constructing an answer or how to make my next point.”

“I am thinking about something else other than what the person is telling me about. Or, I am listening, but my goal is to find some hook to get out of the conversation.”

Practice the Art of Listening Well

While we all like to be heard, few of us are formally taught how to listen. In addition to taking the advice of our peers, we can learn from experts. Three core steps set us in the right direction.

  1. Be present.
  2. Set intentions and be deliberate.
  3. Give appropriate nonverbal and verbal responses.

First, we need to bring ourselves into the current time and place and set thoughts of the past and the future aside. Often focusing on the feeling of our feet on the ground and on the sight of another person brings us fully present. Once present, we can listen better by setting specific intentions such as understanding, problem solving, or a creating a sense of connectedness. 

This Farnam Street blog highlights the importance of listening to create human connections and strengthen relationships.  “A simple way to focus your attention is to listen with the intention of summarizing the other person’s point of view. This stops you from using your mental energy to work out your reply and helps store the other’s words in your memory as well as identify any gaps in your understanding so you can ask questions to clarify.”

Sound expert  Julian Treasure highlights ‘listening positions’ that we hear from usually based on a compilation of our life experience. Our listening position, or mental stance, literally changes what we hear and how we hear it. Active position is listening to be able to reflect back directly what we heard someone say and it is a powerful way to make others feel understood. In contrast, passive listening is suspending the meaning-making process and simply listening to the sound of someone speaking. When listening from a reductive position, we focus on getting to one answer vs. an expansive position where we hear broader possibilities arise. If we are listening from a critical position, we are hearing what can be improved vs. if we are listening from an empathetic position, we are hearing the emotional impact to the person speaking. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ listening positions.  It is all about reading the current need of the speaker and setting intentions deliberately.

The third step is demonstrating to others that we are listening by providing nonverbal and verbal responses.  When we are fully present and intentionally listening, we tend to naturally make eye contact, nod our heads, and give subtle verbal cues of encouragement. Our nonverbal responses reflect what is true – we are fully engaged. The appropriateness of our verbal responses depends on our read of the speaker’s need. An effective solution is to outright ask, ‘Are you looking for answers and advice or would you prefer a sounding board?’ so that the speaker can set us in the right direction.

Since we all love to be heard, let’s give the gift of listening to those around us by being present, deliberate, and giving appropriate responses.

Get Out of Your Head

Most of us look at things from our own perspective. This makes total sense because we are with ourselves more than anyone else. But, it doesn’t make as much sense when we are striving for effective communication with others.

When we communicate and interact with other people, our own thoughts are often very active and distracting. We are thinking questions like, ‘what does this person think about what I am saying?’ ‘am I sounding intelligent here?’ ‘did I offend them with that last comment?’ ‘are they convinced of my opinion?’ ‘what am I going to say next?’. Often we are planning what we are going to say in response to what they are saying. Rarely are we paying 100% attention to the other person’s words and body language, even though we know that is what makes the most effective communication.

A key to effective communication is to get out of your own head. By quieting the stream of thoughts in your own mind and focusing on the other person, you increase the likelihood of a successful interaction. A successful interaction is defined as the person feeling heard and you gaining valuable information, including and beyond the content actually being spoken.

How do you quiet that stream of thoughts? Perspective, patience, and practice.

Perspective

Look at things from the other person’s point of view in advance of the interaction. Catalog what you know about the person and how that knowledge may affect their opinions of the topic to be discussed. In this exercise, you can compare and contrast your own perspective with your audience’s perspective to get a sense of similarity and differences.

Also define the objective or desired outcome of the interaction from both your and the other person’s perspective. For example, you have a planned phone call with a prospect and you know your objective is to get a face-to-face meeting. You can assume their objective is likely to discover if there is a good fit between your offering and their need, and you know that they are looking at many other providers. You also know that the person has an accounting background and shares the same home state as you. In this case, you would connect with similarities (home state), acknowledge their objective (determine fit), use logical appeals (accounting background), and close with the ask of including you in the list of providers with whom they meet (your objective). Note that this perspective-taking happens before the interaction, so these thoughts are not streaming in your head as you interact.

Patience

Let them finish every statement completely before you respond. The pause is a powerful communication technique. People feel that you are listening if you give a thoughtful (3-second) pause after they complete a statement. That pause actually allows you to fully listen while your audience is speaking and then think of your response in those 3 seconds. By fully listening while someone is speaking you gain more information than just the content of what they say. Nonverbal communication says a lot. The pace at which they make certain statements, their facial expression and body language – it all tells you more than just the words. Take our example above and assume you got the face-to-face meeting and kick it off by asking their top priorities. The person responds with a list of three but states the first two very quickly and then slows down their speaking pace on the last one. Likely that last one is really the most important one and you just got that added information because you were being patient and really listening.

Practice

After 100 times it will be habit for you to get out of your head and focus primarily on the other person. While it is not always easy to be an attentive communicator, it is well worth the effort. Don’t give up just because you’re stuck in your head for a conversation (or a few conversations). Set your intention, practice, and then kindly remind yourself to return your attention to the other person when you find yourself focused on the stream of thoughts in your head. Tricks to keep your focus on the other person include paraphrasing what they said in your mind or focusing intently on one aspect of nonverbal communication such as their facial expressions or what they are doing with their hands.

By taking the other person’s perspective in advance and planning how you will accommodate that perspective, you can minimize streaming thoughts during the interaction. By being patient and letting them finish every statement before you respond you are both making them feel heard and gaining valuable information for yourself. By practicing you get better at communicating, which improves your interactions, your relationships, and your desired outcomes.