Are you a good listener?

If we are honest, many of us will admit that it is not uncommon for us to listen to a conversation with someone and not really hear them.  Sometimes  our minds wander off and we are not present when someone is talking to us.  Sometimes we listen to reply instead of  listening to understand.  As a result we frequently fail to connect with the person speaking and can instead damage the relationship if our inattention makes them  feel neglected or resentful.

Again being honest, its likely that our poor listening, isn’t just constrained to work.  It’s possible that we may not be listening at home as well?  It was only once I realised how poor my listening skill was that I was able to do something about it.  Good listening is hard, and it takes effort and hard work, but the good news is that you can improve your listening skills.

Somewhat bizarrely though, listening is something that we take for granted as a skill.  We have ears, what else do we need! It is encouraging that within management it is starting to be taken seriously as an essential skill.

Communication is more than just speaking!

In the past whilst communication has always been highlighted as critically important for successful leadership, the emphasis has been on one way communication. The mantra has been that leaders need to speak and talk at others to inspire them by sharing their vision.  Managers have to give instructions and direction to their teams.

But if we  stop and reflect on this for just one moment, it becomes blindingly obvious how important giving our full attention to someone is if we want to develop trust and strong personal connections.  And of course, this applies in both our personal and professional lives. So what did we learn about listening as we grew up? What training did we ever had a school to become better listeners? If you were like me, you would be simply told to be quiet. Paying attention was not talking and interrupting the teacher.  Good behaviour required silence.

So what is that we actually do to sabotage our conversations and damage our relations and what can we do about it?

Our minds wander

First up, let’s acknowledge that our minds wander.  That’s what minds do when we are in the default mode network.  So we have to really concentrate and remove the mental distractions in our conversations.  Paying attention is tough but worth the effort.  After all you learn by listening to others, not by speaking. The pay-off is huge.

Paraphrasing is helpful too.  Once the other person has finished expressing a thought, paraphrase what they said to make sure you understand and to show that you are paying attention.  Helpful ways to paraphrase include “What you are saying is”, “It sounds like” and “If I understand you right”. This helps to make sure you have been listening and, most importantly, understanding what they are saying.

When appropriate ask questions to encourage the other person to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings.  Asking questions helps to avoid jumping to conclusions about what the other person means.  Asking questions instead gives an opportunity for the other person to clarify his or her meaning.  By asking “When you say that, do you mean?” can help you avoid making assumptions.  In the same vein, don’t interrupt and finish other people’s sentences.  It may seem as if you are being supportive and concurring, but it is quite possible that you are making assumptions and perhaps going off on a tangent.  If you hadn’t interrupted might the other person have said something completely different and provided a far more valuable insight?

Empathy and undivided attention

Expressing empathy is valuable in supporting someone and building connections with another person.  When the other person voices negative feelings it is far more useful to strive to validate those feelings rather than questioning or defending against them.  If they express frustration try to consider why they feel that way regardless of whether you think that feeling is justified or whether you feel that way yourself when you might be in that position so you can respond appropriately.

We all know how important body language is and yet it is so easy to make some fundamental mistakes in how we engage with others.  How do we feel when someone we are talking to is “listening” to us but also on their phone?  You know that they aren’t giving you their undivided attention and they are not listening. When we are involved in cognitive processes we can’t multitask. Listening requires all your attention so try to avoid multi-tasking.  If you can cut out this one bad habit you will notice a real change in the quality of your conversations and relationships.

An opportunity to learn

Finally, one last suggestion which will improve your listening and realise better outcomes.  A good conversation should be a learning experience for everyone involved.  A good conversation is rarely is not a monologue.  Bringing humility and an acceptance that you may not know all the facts and that someone may be able to bring a different perspective to the issue at hand will pay dividends. If you are doing all the talking what will you actually learn from the experience?  Nelson Mandela pointed out that he “learned to have the patience to listen when people put forward their views, even if I think those views are wrong. You can’t reach a just decision in a dispute unless you listen to both sides.” He also expressed the benefits of listening quite beautifully when he said “I never lose. I either win or learn.”