Better to Listen Better

I’ve pounded the table many times about the importance of working well with others for a variety of good reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a way of helping maximize your own productivity and success.

There are several keys to working well with others, and this time around we’re going to focus on listening better as a route to improved relationships in every part of your work and your life.

Although it’s true that almost everyone can listen, hardly any of us do it well.

Some experts say the average person remembers very little of their conversations. But you already know this from your own experience as a talker who has to say things over and over, as well as a listener who can’t remember half of what people say to you.

But you can vastly improve your ability to listen to other people, allowing you to meaningfully understand what they are trying to convey, and build on this information in ways that deepen and strengthen your relationships with them.

Here are some techniques for doing this:

Clear Your Head

You can’t listen effectively if you’re thinking about something else. So your first step in listening better is to clear your head of other matters and focus primarily on the remarks of the person to whom you’re listening.

Whether you use relaxation, meditation, or other techniques to do this doesn’t much matter. The goal is simply to avoid cluttering your thoughts with anything other than the current conversation. If you can, take a minute to do this before you begin every conversation. If not, start by offering some pleasantries while you clear your head. Either way, prepare yourself to more exclusively hear the meat of the messages coming your way.

This not only helps you gather and understand all of the information the other person is trying to convey, it will also help the other person feel valued and heard.

Engage Your Empathy

One of the best ways to kick up the quality of your listening is to go beyond the words to the person delivering them.

  • Who is this person? Where are they “coming from”?
  • What is their agenda, both in this conversation and more generally?
  • What are their values and concerns?
  • What are their expectations of you?
  • What are they feeling about the information they are conveying?

By supplementing your efforts to listen with extra efforts to empathize and understand, you engage more deeply with the person. As a result, you will automatically get more out of the interaction. 

Wait Patiently

In my younger days, I spent a lot of my time in conversations thinking about what I was going to say next. I foolishly assumed I could accurately anticipate what the other person was trying to say, and I wanted to speed things up by having my next remarks fully prepared.

Eventually, I learned this was disrespectful, and also stupid, because I was very often wrong about what the other person was trying to get across. It took me years, but I learned to sit quietly and hear the other person out.

Since then, this patient focus on absorbing information has allowed me to learn quite a lot about what makes other people tick, and I’ve become a much better listener.

One of the things I’ve learned is that a lot of people can surprise me, very often favorably, with what they deep down think and feel.

Draw Them Out

In normal conversation, people often stop after saying only part of what they mean. Also, they sometimes get distracted enough by internal or external events to lose their way or even forget their main point.

To become a better listener, learn to draw them out. This involves:

  • Prompting them with their last few remarks when they get derailed, to help them regain their train of thought and finish all they have in mind to say.
  • Asking thoughtful questions so you can better learn what they are thinking and feeling, and why.
  • Relating your own experiences, whether similar to or different from what they have just told you, as a way of strengthening the interpersonal bond and furthering the conversation.
  • Trying not to fill all the natural silences with chatter. It makes for better listening to consider silences both a moment for reflection and an invitation for the other person to say more.

Practice Active Listening

Conversations – particularly those done in person, or with a visual component – are continuous two-way exchanges. This means even when listening, you are actively participating. You can and should:

  • Nod your head, or shake it, to convey appropriate sentiments as the other person shares thoughts and feelings.
  • From time to time make a few encouraging noises or quiet exclamations, such as: “sure,” “you said it,” “of course,” and “I would have done the same.”
  • Subtly mirror the other person’s body language, particularly posture and arm positions, so the other person subconsciously feels you to be accurately following along.
  • Make enough eye contact so you can gauge the other person’s intentions and feelings, and so they can feel you are honestly paying attention.

The bottom line is this: listening is far from a passive endeavor. The more fully you engage with the other person’s remarks, the more you will gain from every conversation, and the more powerfully people will feel connected, committed, and grateful to you for your attention.

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