How to Become a Better Listener
I spend quite a bit of time working with people on how to communicate: what words to choose and when, delivery, preparation, etc. But one of the most important aspects of communication happens when we aren’t saying anything at all. Becoming a better listener has numerous benefits, ranging from finding common ground with the other person, to gaining a deeper understanding of how you can help them or work together more productively.
Despite this, during conversations many of us tend to simply wait for the other person to stop talking so we can offer up what we believe to be information that is simply more important, or more interesting, than whatever they were saying. If we’re not truly listening to others, then conflict arises that could have easily been avoided just by being a better listener.
Anyone can become a better listener by following a few simple practices that will help you engage and communicate on a deeper level with others.
First, Stop Talking
This seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet I cannot tell you how many times I’ve worked with a client who was interested in being a more active listener, but who could not seem to end the stream of words coming out of their mouths. I get it, the world is a vast and interesting place and sometimes you get so enthusiastic about something that you begin to ramble on and on about it. Or perhaps you’ve convinced yourself that in order to explain something properly you need to deliver a full one-hour stream-of-consciousness monologue (you don’t). Or, at its worst, you’re an extreme narcissist who doesn’t care how you’re impacting others with your endless stream of words (I like to assume the best of people, so I prefer to think it’s one of the other options).
The truth is your reason for excessive talking doesn’t matter because it affects your audience the same way, regardless of your intentions. Now, take a deep breath, stop talking, and listen for what happens next. Which brings me to…
Avoid Interrupting, and if you do interrupt then acknowledge it
This is tricky because even empathetic, well-meaning people interrupt. And I count myself in this group! Sometimes I’m so excited to share an idea, a mutual interest, or cool piece of information that I enthusiastically cut someone off to do so. But when someone does that to me I feel incredibly agitated, so I’ve been working hard on not just refraining from interrupting in the first place, but acknowledging it when I do and asking the other person to complete their thought that I interrupted in the first place.
Ask Active Listening Questions
One of my favorite parts of the Crucial Conversations framework is called “Explore others’ paths.” It’s essentially a guide for how to ask the type of questions that yield a deeper understanding of the other person in order to resolve challenging situation. These types of questions affirm mutual understanding and can go a long way not just in helping you understand, but in helping the other person feel heard. Consider the type of response you’d get for the following questions:
“If I understand correctly, you are feeling ______”
“I want to make sure we’re on the same page, can you help me understand_____”
“I’d like to know more about the point you made earlier about ______”
Make the goal to understand the other person, not to prove yourself right
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love to be right, to be understood, and to be valued. But because we’re all wandering around trying to feel right/understood/validated we inadvertently make others feel like they aren’t understood/validated. Bad behavior ensues because we tend to lash out in order to get the validation we’re craving. This isn’t to say that you should treat everyone as if they’re completely right and you’re wrong (which is terribly unrealistic and can cause a host of other issues), but it is to say that making an effort to understand where the other person is coming from instead of spending all of your energy building your case is a remarkable communication skill that can lead to powerful results.
Becoming a better listener can have transformative effects on your relationships, career, and ability to communicate with others. Take the time to listen, explore other’s paths, and reflect on what you heard instead of just responding. You will find that you learn more, understand more, and when you do speak people will be much more likely to listen to you. Good luck!