The art of listening is an invaluable life skill that requires both self-awareness and self-discipline. Mastering this skill is definitely worth the effort it takes. It can not only help us become better communicators at work and at home, but can also have a positive impact on our job effectiveness, improve our relationships with others, and help us avoid conflict and misunderstandings. By being conscious and aware of what others are wanting to convey to us, our ability to assess, persuade, influence and negotiate with people can skyrocket. In fact, an essential part of success and a key trait in great leaders is the ability to listen, take heed, and act.
We all have the need to feel significant, to be heard and to be understood. It can be extremely frustrating, then, to converse with someone who is continuously texting or glancing at their phone, looking bored or distracted, or interrupting with counter arguments before we are done talking. These types of interactions can ultimately leave us feeling disrespected and annoyed.
“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.” ~Simon Sinek
We may rate ourselves as fairly good listeners, however research suggests that we only retain 25-50 percent of what we hear, so perhaps we aren’t getting the whole message either. This means that when we are interacting with our friends, our significant other or our co-workers, we are most likely only paying attention to a quarter to half of what they are saying.
What can we do to improve this?
Let’s first define what listening is and what it isn’t:
Listening is a mental exercise that encompasses feeling, thinking, and understanding.
It is not ‘fake listening’ that is easily detected by the other party and creates bad feelings.
Listening is psychological; it has the ability to change the energy between two people.
It is not a passive activity.
Listening is being respectfully quiet while the other person is speaking.
It is not about ‘tuning out’ and thinking about what to make for dinner.
Listening means actively paying attention and possibly expanding your restricted perspective on things.
It is not about trying to insert an uninformed opinion when the other person pauses to take a breath.
“When people express opinions that differ from yours, take it as a chance to grow. Seek to understand over being understood. Be curious, not defensive. The only way to disarm another human being is by listening.” ~Glennon Doyle Melton
Paying attention is key to mastering the art of listening. When you pay attention you open yourself up to learning.
We may think we understand the art of paying attention, but oftentimes we mistake paying attention for judgment and think about it as a ‘critical’ function instead of a learning function. Paying attention is neutral; only judgement is critical. Therefore, good listeners don’t jump in with answers or lectures; they ask respectful questions that help uncover solutions or plans of action.
Listening coupled with paying attention allows the person speaking the freedom to express themselves without criticism and without judgement. Paying attention is patient, it is understanding, and it isn’t rushed. When we show this type of respect for other people, they’re more likely to reciprocate and more likely to continue to share their ideas. It’s difficult to suppress the urge to speak sometimes, but with practice and patience, controlling this urge will significantly improve the quality and effectiveness of our conversations.
Try practicing the following:
- find a quiet place without distractions (phone, tv, traffic) in which to talk
- make eye contact to show you care
- don’t interrupt - shine the spotlight on the other person
- ask questions (for clarification or for further explanation)
- show you are in tune with what the person is saying (by nodding/smiling/saying yes)
- be open minded 100% of the time without judgement
- listen without forming responses in your mind
- be empathetic with a whole heart and an open mind
It is also important that you stay away from the wrong kind of listening, as not all listening is productive. Realize when you have opened yourself up to becoming the victim of someone else’s selfish or thoughtless agenda. Unfortunately, there are people who just love to hear themselves talk, who have no interest in you or your thoughts, and who just need someone to talk ‘at’. When you find yourself in these situations, you have every reason to cut your losses (and the stress) and leave the situation as soon as possible.
“A wise old owl lived in an oak, the more he saw the less he spoke.
The less he spoke the more he heard. Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?” ~Unknown