When I say listening, it’s important that we don’t confuse this with hearing. Hearing involves a sound wave entering our ear and the complexities of the ear. Our ear is wonderful, it houses the smallest bones in our body and it enables us to convert a sound wave into a distinguishable sound. Hearing is not wonderful and it’s the first component of listening, but it is not listening.
Hearing is automatic, we don’t have to be trying to hear- if a loud noise happens- then we automatically hear it, whether we want to or not. We use ear plugs and noise cancelling headphones so that we don’t have to hear things, because it is that automatic.
Listening is what happens when we hear with intention- when we try to hear and try to discern the sound waves that we are hearing. This can be when we strain to hear a bird’s call on a walk in the park, to when we try to figure out what foreign language someone is speaking or when we listen to a friend describe their latest challenge.
The main difference between hearing and listening is that while hearing is automatic, listening is not- it requires conscious effort and thought to make happen. As such, there are times when we are good it at it and times when we are not. There are people who are always good listeners and there are people who are not.
Let me just take a second to tell you how important a skill listening is. Being a good listener can help in all aspects of your life. It will make you a better employee, a better manager, a better husband/wife/sibling/son or daughter.
One of the main reasons is that taking the time and making the conscious effort to listen to someone shows them that your care. It tells that they are important, that what they have to say and think is valuable and that you care enough for them to listen. While this is a small thing, it’s incredibly important. Think about what happens when someone won’t take the time to listen to you. How does that make you feel?
Another key point about listening is that good listeners will always be in high demand- because people love to talk. Everyone loves to talk. Even the introvert in the cubicle next to you loves to talk- the trick is finding out what they want to talk about. Some people like to talk about themselves, others about their job, some about their family, some about sports, about news, about weather- everyone has something that they love to talk about. If you can show them that you are a good listener, they will always want to talk to you.
And when people talk about something they are passionate about or that they are interested in, they get excited. They feel good. And by the time they are done talking to you, they are happy and they will like you for spending the time and energy to listen to them. You will gain countless allies and friends.
Now…all of that sounded great, doesn’t it? May as well start listening right away now, shouldn’t you? Well…there’s a catch. Listening has many benefits, but unfortunately, it is not an easy thing to do. Why not?
Here’s a great question for you. Ever have trouble paying attention to what someone is saying? Ever find yourself drifting away during a presentation, meeting or conversation? That’s because your mind can only truly listen to someone for about
17 seconds before your mind begins to wander. Or…I should clarify- 17 seconds or so before your mind has an opportunity to wander. What happens around that time is up to you. Think about a conversation that you’ve recently had with someone….around the 10-15 second mark, stuff starts to happen. You start to think….interesting, or boring, or that relates to my own experience like…
The reason for this is that our ears process the sounds, convert them to language, then send to the brain for processing. Our brain then processes language and makes sense of it in chunks…in chunks up to about 17 seconds of language. After each chunk, your brain can decide to continue processing, or to move on to something else- like daydreaming, or adjusting your shirt, or wondering what’s for lunch…or alternatively- giving the person speaking to you your undivided attention.
So…we know that listening is important, that it’s not easy and that if we do it, we’ll be more successful. The first step in all of this is deciding that we want to become better listeners; that we want to practice this skill so that we can improve.
10 tips that will allow you to become a great listener.
Tip #1….listening requires energy and time. Sometimes, when we are busy, tired or distracted- we don’t have the energy and/or time to listen fully. In cases like those, when someone says do you have a minute? Or could you help with this- its’ okay to say- you know what, right now is not the best time. Let me get back to you later when I can give you my full attention. While this might seem odd, people will appreciate it. Especially if they know that you are a good listener and do give your full attention. If don’t do this, and then do a bad job listening, next time they might not come to you.
Tip #2- nothing is worse then trying to listen to someone when there is something that is distracting. A voicemail light flashing, a noisy colleague outside your office, an email response that you were half way done, or someone waiting outside your office to talk to you. Make sure that you eliminate all distractions before you engage in listening. Ask the person, would you mind if I finish this quickly, or let me close the door so that I can hear you or put my phone on forward so we don’t get interrupted. It shows the person that you really care about listening to them and it’s professional.
Tip #3. Being present in the moment is a lot easier said then done. Only practice will allow you to improve this critical part of listening. When listening, make sure you give it 100% of your attention and focus. When you find yourself drifting, remind yourself that you are listening to the speaker. Even the best listeners are prone to attention gaps, but if you work consciously to improve your focus, you’ll find the gaps are further and further apart. A few other tips will help you get back on track if you do lose your attention.
Tip #4- Taking notes is great for several reasons. Note taking helps our brain process what we are hearing, leading to greater understanding. It also serves as a great reminder for when we find our mind drifting- it allows us to go back to the last note and then move on from there. Finally, note taking also serves as a good review after the session, to really reinforce what you just learnt about the person. If you’d like you can formalize your notes afterwards as well- and keep them all in a folder for that person, so that you can see themes and trends over time. One disclaimer- you’ll want to ask permission to take notes, then you want to make sure you are just capturing key themes; not jotting down every word!
Tip #5 -Asking questions when you do speak is very important- but they have to be the right type of question. You should be asking lots of clarifying questions. Clarifying questions are questions that seek to clarify what the person has just said. It allows us to help clarify our own understanding of what the speaker is saying, as well as ensure the speaker has in fact communicated what they meant. An example would be – “Do you mean that you’re upset about the recent announcements, is that right?” Another way to do this is by paraphrasing:” So you’re saying that you’re upset about the announcements and it makes you feel de-motivated?” Both of these techniques clarify what has been said and then give the opportunity for the speaker to elaborate. You can also use open ended coaching type questions to lead the speaker towards self-reflection or towards considering actions. “So how does that make you feel? Or “What kind of things could you do to deal with this feeling you’re having?” After asking these types of questions- don’t be afraid if there’s some silence while the person thinks about it. Make sure that the questions you ask are either to clarify understanding of what is said or meant or discovery type coaching questions that allow the speaker to reflect upon what they are feeling or what options they have.
Tip #6- There’s a classic study about the percentage of meaning that is communicated via voice, tone and or body language- while the study and its results has been debated recently, there’s no doubt that tone, expression and body language all contribute to how we communicate. In order to improve your listening skills, you want to maintain eye contact and to look for non-verbal cues; if you notice someone’s expression changing, or their body language switch- this is part of their overall communication and could very well have important meaning. This should definitely lead to asking another clarifying question, (“I notice you seem a little skeptical about the project team, is that right?”) or just noting that a particular topic caused the person to change their body language.
Tip #7- This tip is very important, but hardly surprising- to be a good listener, you shouldn’t be talking too much. Some people suggest not speaking more then 20% of the time. While I don’t think putting a percentage on it is important, you should definitely being spending most of your time listening, and not speaking. Make sure that you don’t interrupt, and when you do speak it should be to paraphrase, ask a clarifying question or a discovery/coaching question. Remember, the goal here is to listen and not to speak, which brings us to our next tip-
Tip #8- Resist the urge to give advice. Most of us have an urge to suggest solutions, to ‘fix’ the problems or challenges people are facing. It’s not easy, but don’t offer solutions or give advice to your speakers. Instead ask them speaker what they might do to overcome their challenges or what approaches they might have already tried. You want them to come up with their own actions, reflections or thoughts on their feelings and when they do it on their own it’s much more powerful then if you suggest it. If they do directly ask for your advice, try recommending a few things and asking them their thoughts on each- you always want to be redirecting the conversation so that they are speaking the majority of the time.
Tip #9- Reserve judgements and start fresh! Treat all conversations like they were the first. People change all the time, so you have to ignore your preconceptions, biases and stereotypes- listen deeply each time to ensure that you are actually hearing and not relying upon past conversations to form opinions. Too often we make our minds up about people and their needs without ever getting to know them or listening to them. We presume based on age, gender, race, our perceptions…- you want to stop all of that and listen to each person like it was the first time.
Tip #10- Practice listening on a regular basis - make it a conscious effort to listen more carefully several times a week. Review your notes on a regular basis and take a quick moment after each session to see if you’ve followed these steps well. Ask for feedback from those that you are listening to, or let someone in your life know that you’ll be working on listening and that any feedback that they can give you would be of help. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at this valuable skill.
As per usual, there’s lots of content here that I wasn’t able to cover, like great coaching questions, how to follow up and create action plans.