How to Listen

We’ve all been there. We’re engaged in a conversation with someone. We have something important to say. The person we’re speaking with interrupts, doesn’t appear to be listening or changes the subject while we’re telling a story and suddenly takes over the conversation. We become frustrated, angry, disillusioned, bottle up, and often give up and disengage.

Poor listening skills hurt personal and professional relationships. Sadly, the person with deficient listening skills may never understand why. Conversations don’t have to be this way. People can learn to be better listeners.

Many people think they’re listening, but they’re not. Allowing someone to talk and then changing the subject isn’t listening. Listening to people and speaking over them or interrupting isn’t listening. Repeating what someone says as proof of listening doesn’t qualify as listening any more than regurgitating memorized information on a test shows evidence of learning. Listening requires the employment of a set of skills–not merely a pair of ears.

Why does listening matter? Because it matters to the people speaking to you. People often need someone to listen to them. They want to share, feel heard, and validated. They want their thoughts to have meaning. By listening, you provide an outlet and make them feel better and connected.

The next time you’re engaged in a conversation, pay attention to what you’re doing. Assess your listening skills. Reflect. Think about what matters to you when you’re sharing information. Try to be the listener for others that you wish for yourself.

In the Harvard Business Review, Zenger and Folkman (2016) analyzed the behavior of 3,492 people and identified those individuals categorized as the most effective listeners (the top 5%).  They found the best listeners have the following characteristics:

1) Good listening doesn’t mean you don’t talk when someone else is speaking. The best listeners find appropriate spots to ask questions to show interest. Asking questions shows people you’re doing more than hearing noise; you’re taking an interest. You legitimately want to learn more. Good conversations are interactions. Effective communicators even start them from scratch by asking open-ended questions that express interest.

2) Good listening builds a speaker’s self-esteem. The best listeners offer support and build confidence in the speaker.

3) Good listening involves helping but not debating in a hostile way or trying to win an argument. Nobody is defeated in good listening.

Zenger and Folkman (2016) found that “good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. These interactions allow you to gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.”

Most people can readily identify the best listeners they know. Good listeners are so rare that people who need good listeners value them. It’s the person you call when you have problems at work or in a relationship, exciting news to share or want to vent about problems in the world. You know you can count on your good listeners to hear you, unpack the layers of your concerns, and provide support. When the conversation is over, you feel better. Sadly, people often don’t call their closest family members in those situations because they don’t have good listening skills.

The best listeners also give people their full attention. If the phone rings, they shut off the television, step away from the computer, stop texting or doing dishes and become fully present for the person speaking.

Not every conversation will go as planned. Sometimes we reflect and realize we didn’t pause enough to allow someone to engage with us. Sometimes we unload and overwhelm our listener. Sometimes we get defensive. It’s that reflection that can help us to become better speakers and listeners. A good listener is so valuable. A good listener doesn’t hijack conversations and make them about them. A good listener is present, shows real concern, asks meaningful questions at appropriate times, shows an eagerness to unpack layers of complexity, and uses body language to send a supportive message. A good listener is a treasure. We should all strive to be that person.

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