On the jenniferkammeyer.com blog we have explored many aspects of effective listening and now I invite you to watch a short 4-minute video called A Little Lesson on Listening.
We all desire connection, have innate curiosity, and feel gratitude. We can leverage these three human qualities to improve our listening skills and increase engagement.
Our innate desire for connection with others is a lever we can pull to increase our listening engagement. Thinking of how our fellow conversationalists might have similar interests or values is a means for finding out how we are connected. Sometimes the connection is strong and sometimes not so much, but with engagement we can discover just what it is.
Our thirst for knowledge and desire to learn new things is a lever for listening engagement. We don’t know what we don’t know and by listening we will likely learn a new fact or a new perspective.
We may never pass this way again, so having gratitude for those in front of us and what they are sharing is an excellent lever for listening engagement. When we are feeling that what others are saying is valuable, we are engaged. Appreciating that the other person is sharing their thoughts, experiences, and opinions will make it easier for us to stay entirely focused on what they are saying.
Leveraging human desire for connectedness, our natural inquisitiveness, and gratitude for the privilege of listening to someone, we can improve our skills of listening engagement, the emotional state of dedication and interest. This emotional engagement will be visible through our nonverbal and verbal behavior, and it will require the cognitive elements of attention and comprehension.
Listening well allows us to connect in new ways, increasing our understanding and helping us solve the challenging problems of our time. Plus, it feels good to be really heard and that is a gift we can give our coworkers, our family members, and our friends.
We may think of listening as a silent activity, but good listening includes a surprising number of verbal responses. It is helpful to think of listening as distinct components so we can analyze our own listening skills and recognize good listening in others. Listening, the process of paying full attention to someone speaking, includes three elements, each with two components: the affective element with the components of empathy and engagement, the cognitive element with the components of attention and comprehension, and the behavioral element with the nonverbal and verbal components.
Homing in on the verbal component of listening behavior, there are the small sounds/words we utter, the phrases we state, and the questions we ask. Usually, these verbalizations occur in some combination. Always, the purpose of the verbal component of listening is to encourage the speaker to continue or to clarify/confirm understanding for the listener. Even though the listener is verbalizing, this component of listening focuses on the speaker. The “litmus” test of effectiveness is if the verbal behavior keeps the speaker talking. Here are examples of little words, helpful phrases, and curious questions that my communication coaching clients have found effective.
The pitch and volume of these utterances can vary depending on the intent of the listener. For example, a higher pitch at the end connotes a question and louder volume adds emphasis.
- Uh huh
- Got it
Longer phrases encourage the speaker to provide more detail or to clarify/confirm some element of their communication. The purpose of rephrasing what was heard is not to prove the listener is good at memorizing, but to give the speaker a chance to clarify their message based on feedback.
- Thank you for sharing.
- I appreciate your perspective.
- I appreciate the information.
- It is clear you have researched this topic.
- So, what you are saying is <rephrase what your heard>
- What I heard was <rephrase what your heard>
- It seems as though <phrase what was inferred but not directly stated>
Open-ended questions allow the speaker to continue the conversation in the direction they see most fit. On the other hand, specific questions serve the needs of the listener to clarify or expand upon points of interest – this is a good conversation technique, but not a listening technique. Curious and open-ended questions are designed to encourage the sharing of more information that the speaker deems relevant.
- Can you tell me more?
- What else have you discovered?
- What else might be possible?
- What else could we explore?
- What have we yet to consider?
Here are some effective combinations of the sounds, phrases, and questions.
- Got it. <Rephrase idea>. Did I hear that correctly?
- Thank you for sharing. Can you tell me more?
- What I heard was <rephrase idea>. My initial reaction is <emotion-not thought>. What I would like to know more about it is <element you are most curious about>.
- Hmm. It seems like you may be feeling/thinking/considering <state what is inferred but not spoken>. Might that be the case?
Uttering small sounds and words, stating helpful phrases, and asking curious, open-ended questions comprise the verbal behavior of listening that supports the speaker in sharing information they seek to convey. I encourage you to try out the examples above and send me other examples that have worked well for you. Keep listening – it makes communication better and it makes life more interesting!
Listening with curiosity allows us to be empathetic and focus more on others than ourselves. Recently while getting yelled at, the thought crossed my mind, “I wonder what is going on for this person that they are raising their voice?” In this moment, I was practicing empathetic listening and was able to focus on curiosity instead of my own self-interest. I did not take it personally. Granted, this is not always the case, but it is a worthwhile intention to practice empathetic listening. When we listen empathetically, we demonstrate caring and encourage others to share, which gives them a sense of being worthy and gives us more valuable information.
Defining Empathetic Listening
It is helpful to define empathy, especially because it is a bit loaded in today’s vernacular. According to Psychology Today, empathy is “the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another.” Empathy is different than sympathy, which is a concern for someone else, and different than compassion, which is an altruistic desire to act on a person’s behalf. The common analogy for empathy is the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes.
As a frame of reference from our listening process framework, empathy falls within the Affective category, which addresses the emotional element of listening.
Empathetic listening is the skill of switching our listening lens from our own perspective to another person’s perspective. It is challenging for three key reasons: we are self-centered beings evolutionarily inclined to take care of our needs first, we live among many distracting stimuli, and we rarely stay in the present moment. Empathetic listening falls squarely in the listening challenge of our evolutionary self-centered tendencies as humans. When we listen, we tend to think about how what is being said affects us, and we tend to assume the person speaking is thinking about us. But in reality, most of the time all of us are thinking about ourselves. The antidote to the challenge of empathetic listening is curiosity.
Curiosity, or the desire to know more, is what allows us to shift our perspective from our own to another’s. Sometimes we are naturally curious and find what someone is saying interesting; in these cases, empathetic listening is easy. This tends to be when we care about the other person and they are speaking of something that expands an area of knowledge that already entices us. The good news is that we can use this experience to identify our own actions of empathetic listening and apply them to other situations, even difficult situations when empathetic listening may not come naturally.
Getting yelled at is a perfect example of a difficult situation. Most of the time when someone raises their voice, we think it is about us. We think that something we did or said made them yell at us, and we want to protect and defend ourselves against this upset. But, if we think back to times in life that we raised our voices, we may notice that there were many factors involved that were way broader than just what sparked the moment of yelling. While it is challenging, having curiosity about the person who is yelling allows for empathetic listening and can help diffuse the situation.
What it Looks Like to Listen with Curiosity
Listening with curiosity will look different for each of us, but there are some common techniques we can apply. This includes setting the intention to listen attentively until the other person has stopped talking; making verbal acknowledgement sounds such as ‘hmm’, ‘ahuh’, ‘ah’; and asking open-ended, non-judgmental questions. Just waiting for a person to completely finish speaking and allowing for a moment of silence can be very impactful. ‘Tell me more’ is a good statement to make after they finish, and it is even better when we can add the subject at the end, such as, ‘Tell me more about your experience on TikTok’, or ‘Tell me more about what is upsetting to you right now’. Examples of open-ended questions include ‘What was that like for you?’, ‘How did you feel after that?’, ‘What was the best thing about that experience?’, and ‘What was most difficult?’. If we are feeling a desire to act, then ‘What can I do to help?’ is a good question.
Practice: Listen with Empathy
When listening to others, practice wondering what they will say next and wondering more about the topic they are discussing. Imagine the benefit of expanding your knowledge through listening to the person speaking. With this mindset, practice the following actions:
- Notice how you listen to someone you like talking about a topic that naturally interests you.
- Apply those same actions in situations where you are less fond of the person and may even disagree with what they are saying.
- Wait for the person to completely finish speaking and pause for a moment.
- Ask open-ended questions, without judgement.
- If moved by compassion, avoid giving advice and instead ask ‘How can I help?’
Empathic listening is so beneficial and worth the effort. It is fine and normal that we will not always be able to apply this skill, and still, we can practice. What is wonderful is the unexpected things we may learn about the world and others through our curiosity.
Just like wearing colored glasses changes how we see things, our listening lens changes how we hear things. We all hear something different through our own particular listening lens. Our listening lens is created by the sum total of all we have learned and experienced in our lives. This lens shapes how we take in the world.
Knowledge of the listening lens, and the discovery of both our own and others’ lens in interactions, gives us vital information to become better communicators. This knowledge can unveil the difference between what we think we are saying and what others are hearing and vice versa. It can help us clear up misunderstandings.
Recalling the listening processes framework from The Year of Better Listening blog, this skill falls in the Cognitive category of Comprehension. It is the skill of becoming a better listener through comprehending the lens that is influencing interpretations.
Through the Listening Lens
Through what lens am I listening?
We can take a minute before interacting with someone – or even a few seconds during an interaction – to see what is going on inside our own heads about the person or the situation. There may be some expectation about how this interaction will go based on how other interactions like this went in our previous experience. There might be some hidden bias present based on what we have learned. We can notice our listening lens in an interaction and acknowledge that it is not neutral. It is important to acknowledge that our lens is influencing how we perceive and interact with others. With this insight we can adjust our communication. For example, we can adjust our expectation and approach the situation with curiosity about how it will play out this time.
Through what lens are others listening?
We can pick up clues about others’ listening lens based on what they say, their body language, and how they react to us. If we are saying something we intend to be positive, we can notice if the reaction is positive. In particular, when we get a reaction that we do not expect, instead of immediately getting defensive we can pause and think what possible listening lens could have generated such a reaction. For example, if we say ‘that was fast’ with the intention of praise and we get a frown, perhaps the listening lens of the other person is that fast means poor attention to detail.
We can also use the technique of asking open-ended questions such as ‘what does that bring up for you?’ to better understand others’ interpretation of what was said. By actively listening without judgment, we may be able to better understand how to bridge the gap between our intention and their interpretation of what we said.
Practice: Listening Lens Awareness
Last month, we practiced with paying attention and keeping our focus on the person(s) with whom we are interacting. This month, we build on that skill by focusing on the listening lens at play in an interaction. We cognitively acknowledge our own lens and how it is influencing the interaction, and we seek clues about the listening lens of others. Let’s practice this during times of misunderstandings this month.
- Notice that there has been a difference in interpretation of meaning
- Acknowledge our own listening lens at play in the moment
- Gather clues about others’ listening lens at play
- Ask open-ended questions to clarify meaning
Our lives today include interactions with people from many different cultures with vastly different life experiences. While we may have a more similar listening lens to those with shared backgrounds, we severely limit ourselves if we can only listen to people with a similar lens. Seeking to see things from others’ perspective and really thinking through the lens of the listener helps us comprehend possible interpretations, making us better communicators.
What they are hearing?, I ponder when I see a rabbit darting down a country road with ears perked and pivoting. The visual reminds me of active listening, a skill many of us are still perfecting. In this year of the Water Rabbit, when we can expect calm and reflection, I will focus my research and writing on the communication skill of listening.
The Value of Listening
We intuitively know—and research shows—that good listening has benefits. We feel better when we feel heard and we demonstrate we care by listening to others. Listening improves relationships and makes speakers feel at ease. Listening well gives us information that helps us understand others, making us better problem solvers.
The Challenge of Listening
While important, being a good listener is not easy. Three factors make it challenging. First, we are self-centered beings by nature, and by this I mean that we evolutionarily take care of our needs first for survival. Second, there are many stimuli to distract us, from the obvious such as our smart phones to the not-so-obvious like our perceptions of the person speaking. Third, we tend to think about the past and future much more than we stay in the present moment.
Take this scenario, for example: An important person in our lives starts to tell us about a problem they encountered and we immediately start to think of ways we can fix the issue. We nod our head and say, ‘mmhmm’ and then wait for the earliest opportunity to share the brilliant solution we just generated. Likely this scenario sounds familiar. I spend my life in the realm of effective communication, and it is very familiar to me! And this is a better scenario than an important person in our lives starts to tell us about a problem and our phone buzzes so we look down and see a funny text and smile. But either scenario can leave the other person feeling unheard.
Self-centered, distracted, and not in the moment. These are the enemies of good listening. The friends of good listening? Intention and practice. The tactics can be learned, and with intention and practice our habits can shift.
What Does it Mean to Listen?
The academic definition of listening is “a multidimensional construct that includes affective processes (e.g., exhibiting empathy and engagement), cognitive processes (e.g., attention and comprehension), and behavioral processes (e.g., nodding and asking questions).” (Flynn, et al, 2022). In everyday terms it is paying attention and showing that we are paying attention.
In 2023 I am focusing on the intention and practice of listening. I invite you to join me on this journey, where every month I will present a different aspect of listening and offer up a practice. The first practice is in the category of cognitive processes and it is the act of paying attention.
Practice: Paying Attention
Paying attention means that the mind, body, and emotions are all focused on one thing–in this case, the speaker. That means our thoughts are on that person, that our bodies are still with eyes on the speaker, and that we are emotionally trying to connect to how they feel in the moment. This can be done in person, on video, or over the phone.
- Pick one person you will pay full attention to when they speak or you can pick one situation that occurs regularly, such as a team meeting.
- Before conversing with that person or entering into the situation, remind yourself of your intention: “I intend to pay full attention, bringing my focus back to the speaker when it strays.”
- After the conversation or the situation, check in with yourself and note how well you met your intention.
I encourage us all to practice and see what happens. May 2023 be the year we learn to listen better.
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.
- Be present.
- Set intentions and be deliberate.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.