In a world where everyone is constantly talking, it’s hard to remember to listen. Many people feel like they have to fight to be heard above all the noise. Our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. We jump from person to person, from story to story, and sometimes, we can’t even hear ourselves.
I consider listening to be my super-power - one of my most valuable tools in my proverbial toolbox. It’s helped me throughout my career, whether I’ve been teaching, building relationships, or consulting. Listening helps me gain insight into people, solve problems, and learn something new.
So how do we relearn the art of listening?
Step One: No distractions.
I know this seems like old news, but I’m surprised how often people have conversations while looking at their phone every 20-30 seconds. Set aside the iPhone, put down your notebook, and give the other person your full attention. Actually look into their eyes. This for me is the hardest part, since I’m a consummate note-taker. But I find that even taking notes for me can be distracting, and I remember so much more of what has been said when I’m fully in the moment.
Step Two: Don’t think about what you’re going to say next.
Do you remember being in class, having something to say, and waiting, hand raised, for the teacher to call on you? It was difficult then to remember what other people were saying because you wanted to keep your share in your head, and it’s equally difficult today. If you’re thinking about what you are going to say next, you’re not really listening to your conversation partner. It’s perfectly okay to take a moment to pause and regroup after the other person stops talking, but try to focus solely on what they are saying, and not how you will respond.
Step Three: When in doubt, repeat what your conversation partner says back to them.
Sometimes part of listening is being sure that you understand what the other person is saying. It’s lovely to nod and smile, and give sounds of affirmation, but if you don’t understand what the other person is actually saying, it will be a pretty dull conversation. As silly as this may sound, repeating parts of the conversation back can do wonders for clarity, and has the added bonus of making the other person feel heard.
Step Four: Pay close attention to what’s not being said.
Here’s where the detective role really comes in. Notice the non-verbal cues. Is your colleague telling you about a project and saying it is going really well, but is hunching his shoulders and seeming stressed? Is a client sounding confident, but expressing doubt? Being observant can make all the difference in the world when you can follow up with thoughtful questions.
What are some of your best tips for thoughtful listening?