How to become a better listener
Do you ever find yourself zoning out while someone is talking? Of course. We all do. In this world of instant gratification and social media distractions competing for your time combined with an array of responsibilities at work, it makes active listening pretty difficult.
“We are living in a time when it’s more challenging to be consistently aware and intentional because so many things are demanding our attention. Our brains haven’t caught up to the technology that’s feeding them,” says Scott Eblin, author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative. “The impact of this leaves people in a chronic condition of fight or flight.”
Listening is also hard because we’re often consumed with ourselves, says Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center. “It’s really hard to walk into a conversation without my agenda being written on my forehead and your agenda written on yours,” he says. “Unfortunately with the hectic, chaotic, complicated pace of work life today, people are even more committed to getting their own agenda accomplished.”
Why is listening crucial? Let’s look at Oprah.
Oprah’s interview with Lance Armstrong attracted nearly half a million views on YouTube. Oprah is a leader in her field. She has developed one of the most critical, yet underrated, skills in personal leadership – Active listening.
One of Oprah’s key strengths is her ability to listen. She not only listens to what is being said, she listens for what is not being said. In any spoken message, 55% of the meaning is translated non-verbally, 38% is indicated by the tone of voice, while only 7% is conveyed by the words used (Mehrabian, 1981).
In the interview with Lance Armstrong, Oprah demonstrates her active listening by using her EARS where:
E = show empathy and engage with eye contact
When listening actively, keep your eyes on the speaker. A soft gaze rather than a piercing glare. This further encourages the speaker to speak. When you are looking at the speaker, you will notice how their body moves, or how it stays rigid and the message this sends. As people speak, their eyes will look in different directions, stay focused on them, even if they are not looking at you.
A = ask questions
Ask questions to encourage the speaker to speak more. In the interview with Lance Armstrong, Oprah asked the same question three times ‘what did you tell your son?’ It was a difficult question for Lance and it evoked much emotion. The same question kept Lance on track and enabled him to express all that was connected with that question – both the emotions and the facts.
R = restate what you have heard
To ensure you understand what the speaker is saying or asking or to show you have listened actively, restate what the speaker has said. This provides the speaker to acknowledge your listening or clarify what they have just said. It further helps the speaker to think more.
S = silence
The power of silence is invaluable. After you have asked a question or restated what you have heard, the key is remaining silent. Allow the speaker to respond. I have noticed how uncomfortable people feel with silence and so they choose to fill the silence with an ‘mmm’ or ‘ahhahh’ and whilst this can be acknowledging to the speaker, if offered too frequently, it serves as a distraction and can have the opposite effective of ‘hurry up, I have heard enough now!’
Listening vs. Hearing
“When you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.” Jiddu Krishnamurti
Hearing is a sense – it happens when sound hits our ears and involves the processing of sound in the brain. I hear a truck outside my window. I hear my roommate’s footsteps upstairs. Hearing is a passive physical process. In this sense, saying “I hear” is almost too generous, since it describes hearing as an action I perform. It’s not something that I “do,” it’s simply that sound is heard by my ears and, to some extent, by my brain.
Listening, on the other hand, is an action we consciously take. When we listen, we go beyond simply hearing words by giving our attention to what is being said. In the section above, we went over the practical, social and personal developmental benefits of listening well. Now, let’s consider what kind of attention is required to listen effectively in these three areas.
Here are five techniques to listen more effectively:
1. Open up your body language. Your body language reveals your interest or disinterest in a story. When actively listening to someone, lean slightly forward and make eye contact. A simple smile and the occasional nod will show that you’re interested and engaged.
2. Stay engaged. If you’re in a busy area, focus more on the person you’re with and less on what’s going on around you. Similarly, while on the phone, turn your back to your computer and give the person you’re talking to your full attention. When you’re distracted by technology, it makes others feel unimportant.
3. Resist the urge to interrupt. It can be tempting to finish someone’s sentence to show you comprehend their message, but it can come off as rude. Listening builds trust. If you interrupt someone–even with good intentions–it denies the speaker the opportunity to fully express her feelings or opinions. To ensure that you won’t interrupt, always pause for a few seconds before responding.
4. Ask questions. The two most powerful words in a conversation are, “Tell me.” People will perk up when you ask them pertinent questions and listen attentively to their responses. If you take an active interest in the lives of others, they will return the favor.
5. Practice empathetic listening. Listen not only with your ears, but with your eyes and your heart. You don’t have to necessarily agree with the speaker, but imagine how he or she feels. Put yourself in another person’s shoes to fully understand their point of view.