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Eight Suggestions for Improving Your Listening Skills

Late one evening after all the children had gone to bed, I was sitting in the kitchen eating a wonderful piece of chocolate cake and thumbing through the latest L.L. Bean catalogue. My wife approached and asked if I had a moment to listen to her. “Sure, go ahead!” I responded. I continued to eat, look at the catalogue, and listen to her concerns. Suddenly she launched, “You’re not even listening to me!”

“Sure I am!” I responded.

“Prove it!” she retorted.

I repeated back to her everything she had said for at least five minutes. Not a good idea!

In frustration and exasperation, she blasted me as she exited the room, “You just don’t get it! I can handle the cake, but not the magazine!”

At that time, she was right. I didn’t get it. I thought that hearing someone was listening. Little did I understand how important it is to give someone our full attention. We can listen to the sounds of someone’s voice and still not hear them, just as we can be in their presence and still not be present with them. Often effective listening is called, “active” listening. Such listening requires you to do something other than just hearing the words that a person uses. Most of our poor listening results from what I call “interference.” Sometimes interference is caused by our behavior and our thinking. At other times, others’ actions create the interference that makes it difficult to focus and understand what others are really saying.

How Interference Decreases Our Ability to Listen

In preparing my book, we identified a number of reasons that people don’t listen. Notice how many of them deal with our behavior:

1.     You are preoccupied with a pressing challenge or issue. You invite a person to share with you, but your behavior really communicates that you are not there.

2.     You have your own agenda that forms the foundation or perspective from which you listen.

3.     You listen from the perspective of evaluation. You are more interested in hearing whether the person agrees with you or not.

4.     Perhaps you listen from the perspective of giving advice. You listen to a challenge solely from the perspective of what a person should do. This is listening with the intent of being able to play the role of “Mr. or Ms. Fix-it” when the person finishes sharing.

5.     You think you know what they are going to say, so you just tune out or worst yet, you interrupt them or finish their sentences.

6.     You are still thinking about what the person said two minutes ago, so you are not listening to them in the moment. Unfortunately, you become lost in the conversation and you miss pieces of information that may be important to hear.

7.      You are thinking about what you should say next, which also means that you are missing the message in the moment.

8.     You pay more attention to your own “head speak” than to what the person is actually saying. (“Head speak” is that little voice in your head that is always editorializing, analyzing, or criticizing what the other person is saying or doing.) In the moment you find yourself in your own thoughts, you know you have missed part of the person’s message.

9.     You may simply be impatient. Impatience may be a matter of personal style. If you are the type of person who just wants to get to the point and your speaker is rambling on forever, you may find it difficult to hang in there and be totally present. Sometimes a personal pressing problem or challenge can contribute to our lack of patience.

10.  You may lack the discipline to stay focused to listen to another person. Being able to totally recognize and suspend your thinking in order to listen fully to another person requires practice and discipline. If you have never practiced giving your full attention to another, you may find it difficult to do.

How Can You Increase Your Listening Skill?

 First, know that listening and attending is a skill that can be learned and improved upon if you will practice. Here are some suggestions you can try and incorporate in your interactions with others:

Be aware. You have to be more aware of what you are doing when you are listening to others. If you find your thoughts wandering, you need to immediately refocus on the person and what they are saying. Increasing your awareness of the person will help you to notice all of the messages that they are sending that you might not have noticed before.

Manage your time. Listening to what others have to say takes time. If you don’t have the time or if you are preoccupied with an issue, you will gain more creditability and increase respect by telling the other person what you are up against and then setting up a time when you can fully engage them and hear what they have to say. Manage your time to listen effectively.

Be present. Eliminate all outside distractions. Turn off the phone, shut down the email, tell your assistant you don’t want to be interrupted, or schedule a particular time to talk with a person and don’t let anything violate that space. If you can be fully present with the person, they will walk away feeling like they are really as important as they should be.

Observe and mirror nonverbal behavior. Mirroring is not mimicking or parroting their behavior. When you gently mirror what people are doing nonverbally you are managing their brain’s tendency to protect them. When you display similar nonverbal behavior, their brain will tell them, “Hey they are just like us. No need to be afraid. They are on our side.”

Ask questions. Of course if a person rolls their eyes, don’t mirror that behavior. Ask a question to try and understand the meaning behind the behavior. For example, you might ask, “Did you disagree with something that I just said? Please tell me if you have concerns.” Asking questions about stories they may tell you will also help you to gain a more complete or in-depth understanding of what is going on with them.

Notice their words. If you listen to their choice of words in describing a certain event, you will start to gain some understanding of what is going on with them. Asking questions about what words you are hearing them use will help you gain more information about what you are hearing and noticing.

Hear their tone. Tone is the music of the mind. Tone is the emotion that is filling a person up and flowing out of them. Sometimes the tone will tell you more about what is going on with a person than the words they use. Also, note that a person’s nonverbal behavior will align with their tone.

Assess their presence. Presence is a reflection of what is going on in a person’s head. It can also be a particular mindset. For example, if someone is frustrated by a situation or a person, everything they say and do will be reflected from their presence in frustration. Being able to notice behavior, words, and tone will give you some idea of where they are coming from.

Use clarifying or summarizing questions. Anytime you want to check your understanding, summarize or clarify what you think you have heard. Don’t be surprised if what you thought is incomplete or inaccurate. That’s just the nature of the way we think.

You could probably write your own book about improving your listening skills. What is important is that you begin to recognize when you are not listening and to do something about the situation. On one level, being a good listener requires that we suspend our subjectivity and practice objectivity in our attempt to understand others. Really understanding others creates connections and improves our relationships and our results.  


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How Do You Strengthen Your Presence?

I was recently asked to write a piece for a magazine on developing presence. Because of the short deadline, I was disappointed that I had to decline the opportunity. However I believe this to be an important topic for not only leaders but also anyone who works with people to carefully consider because it impacts the influence and positive effect you can have on others. With more time to reflect on the topic, I couldn’t help myself.

I would define “presence” to be the vibe, energy, frequency, or power that emanates from us. When I think of presence, I think of my friend, Todd Christensen. I had the opportunity many years ago to work with him on a community project and came to know the person outside the image that others had of him. I must admit that at the beginning of our relationship, I was a bit intimidated. However, looking back today, I would identify him as a man with presence that I would want to emulate.

For those of you who don’t know Todd, let me tell you a bit about him. He was a five-time Pro Bowler who played tight end for the Oakland Raiders for 10 years. He played in two Super Bowls and after his retirement was a sports broadcaster for NBC, ESPN, and CBS Sports. He was often referred to as the “Renaissance Man” because of his prolific vocabulary. He was well read in a number of fields, could quote any number of well-known poets and authors, and had one of the most beautiful baritone voices I had ever heard. Despite being a person of renown, he was always respectful, gracious, and interested in others. He was supportive, encouraging, honest, and as unpretentious an individual as I have ever met. Indeed, if you didn’t know who he was, you would never hear about any of his achievements from him.  

Because of his example, I hope what I offer might help you to think about and improve your presence with those with whom you work and associate.

1.     Care for people. You might ask yourself if you really care about the people in your life. It has been said that we really don’t understand others until we have walked a mile in their shoes. Because of our harried existence, I have found that we don’t often take a moment or two to learn about those with whom we work. Sometimes during training, I provide participants with an opportunity to get to know one another on a more personal basis. Sometimes when I call “time” on an activity people will “boo” me. When I have asked why the boos, I typically hear, “I’ve worked with him forever and never knew this!” When you take the time to show you care about people, they know it, and they will respond in kind to you and those around them.

2.     Ask questions and listen. Asking and listening to others requires that we be totally present with them in the moment. Being present is not something that you can pretend and hope it works. When I become frustrated with a person at work, I always try to remember that from their perspective they are rational. Remembering that inspires me to ask questions, listen, and be totally present in order to understand their point of view. 

3.     Celebrate yourself. It is difficult to celebrate others if you can’t celebrate something about yourself. You have come to the point where you are because of something you have done. Take a minute to identify what you do well and the skills and capability that make you a distinct and unique individual. Indeed you should find joy in your abilities and celebrate your successes. When you are confident in your ability, your confidence will lead others to trust and have confidence in you. Remember that confidence is not arrogance.  

4.     Lead by example. Identifying some specific character traits or qualities that you would like to develop can help you to enhance the presence you desire to project. Identify the traits you most admire, make a specific plan for their development in your life, and demonstrate and apply those traits. You will become what you consistently do, and others will emulate the example that you set. Developing those traits to which you aspire will change your life and those with whom you associate.

5.     Express appreciation. I once had a woman who had worked for a major telecommunications company tell me that in the 19 years she had worked there, not once had anyone ever said, “Thank you.” We need to take notice of the things that people do for us and go out of our way to express our sincere appreciation for their efforts. Whether it be the janitor or the CEO, we should take the opportunity to express appreciation. People notice and care for those who notice and care for them.      

6.     Identify your intent. When I speak to large audiences, I often think about the type of audience that I am speaking to and identify a role and an emotion that I want to portray. For example, I might decide that I want to be a motivator with one group and that I want to project enthusiasm as an emotion. I will then approach that group with the idea of being an “enthusiastic motivator” in mind when speaking to them. I have found this to be like putting in the software that will run the program. Be clear about the energy you want exude. This will increase the likelihood of achieving the presence you want.    

7.     Become more self-aware. You might ask yourself, “What’s it like to be around me?” If you don’t know, start to take note of how others respond to you. Do people go out of their way to include you, ask for your support, or solicit your ideas? Do they easily hold the difficult conversation with you? What emotion do you most frequently portray? Remember that positive emotions, words, and behaviors attract others to you; whereas, “negatives” of any kind usually repel or push others away. 

8.     Be resilient. Don’t give up. Keep working at what you are trying to achieve. Sometimes we think that something like presence is something that some have and others don’t. People who demonstrate specific abilities and strengths have developed those abilities by working hard and continuing to press forward until they achieve their desired goals.

9.     Be true. This is the hardest of all to do because it is so personal in nature. Only you can decide what being “true” means. I really believe in Aristotle’s notion that to be a good speaker you had to be a good person. Being true is more than being authentic. Perhaps it deals with how willing we sincerely put the wellbeing of others before ourselves. If you really want to increase the power of your presence as an individual, a leader or a manager, then you must examine the singleness of your intent and the desires of your heart in how you live your life. Life elevated causes us to resonate at a much higher frequency that resonates with others.  

Every one of us has experienced a person that portrays a powerful, positive presence, whether it be a leader, a friend, a mother, a father, a teacher, a business associate, or a recent acquaintance.  What is important is the decision to become the person that we desire to become and take deliberate steps toward that journey of becoming. After all, it could be said that our presence is the essence of who you really are. Only you can decide that for yourself. That’s what Todd Christensen did.     

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10 Tips on Improving the Vitality and Quality of Your Relationships

A number of years ago at the conclusion of a two-day REAL Conversation class, two elderly gentlemen waited for me after class. After everyone left, they approached me and thanked me for the session. I asked them what had been most memorable and helpful for them. One of them perked up and said, “Before this class, neither one of us had spoken to one another for the last 21 years!” When I asked how that had happened, the other man said, “Funny thing is, we can’t remember now what we did that made each other so angry!”

Can you imagine working in the same company, team, or location and being so mad that you don’t talk to another person for that long? Think of how much effort it would take to go out of your way not to speak with someone for that long, not to mention the emotional toll it would take to be that angry for that long.

Often when I have the opportunity to coach an executive to improve their communication skills, they will bring up a work-related or personal situation where the relationship has been damaged or strained. When this occurs, I like to ask this question, “How long are you willing to wait for the other person to rebuild the relationship?” They usually come to recognize that if they decide to do nothing to heal or improve that relationship, then nothing will ever change.

All of us have a relationship or two that could use some attention. Unless you consciously and deliberately weigh in on the cost of that relationship and make a decision to improve it, nothing will change.

Here are 10 tips for helping to improve the vitality and quality of your relationships:

1.  Be aware.  Sometimes we are clueless. Not because we want to be, but because we just don’t stop and think and recognize where we are and what needs to be improved. You need to personally reflect upon the quality of your relationships, and be candidly honest with yourself about what is not working. When you can identify where you need to put your attention and focus, you will be able to start the healing process.

2.  Acknowledge Your Part.Whether you want to admit it or not, you did or said something or you didn’t do or say anything and that has helped you arrive at the place where you are. To completely understand the situation, you will need to explore the understanding of the other person. However, you need to identify anything you may have done or said that has contributed to the current status of the relationship.

3.  Engage in Conversation.This is the hard part. You may have to surrender your ego, your desire to be right, your desire to be in control, or whatever is driving you. If you can suspend your thinking and approach the conversation with a spirit of learning and understanding, then things will go much better than you anticipated.

You also might want to use a respectful Attention Check such as, “I’d like to talk about what we could do to improve our relationship. Can we do that?” Don’t worry, they won’t say “No!” People are usually so shocked by another’s willingness to engage them that they will accept your invitation.

4.  Invite Their Perspective. Because you have thought through the current situation and understand your perspective, invite them to share their perspective first. This will allow you to gain insight into their thinking which will allow you to know what you need to share or not share when it is your turn to talk about your perspective.

5.  Ask Questions and Listen. As they are sharing their perspective, you must be totally present and really listen to what they are telling you. This isn’t something that you can “fake it, until you make it.” Ask questions to deepen your understanding, clarify what you have heard, or explore examples of behavior. Don’t assume anything. Ask and listen to understand.

6.  Apologize. Offering an apology is not assuming blame for the entire situation. For example, if you were unclear in giving directions, then you would say, “I apologize for not being more clear.” If you did or said something that may have been offensive, then you would say, “I apologize that I offended you.” It doesn’t matter if you didn’t intend offense. Usually, offense is taken where none was given. And don’t make your apology about them. I once had someone say to me, “I’m sorry that you didn’t understand me.” I almost laughed out loud because their “apology” really did nothing more than assign the misunderstanding to me.

7.  Be Sincere. I have found that sincerity will carry the day. If you aren’t sincere in wanting to improve the relationship, no matter what you say won’t work. If you sincerely want to improve and deepen your relationship with a person, they will know because that is the energy that you project.

8. Be Forgiving.S ometimes the reason we become angry with another person is because we are angry with ourselves, often more so than being angry with the other person. First, forgive yourself. Second, forgive the other person for what they may have done or said. If your harbor ill feelings or strong, negative emotions for another person, you are going to do damage to yourself. You don’t need to carry that around with you. If you can forgive the other person, you will create a space for any number of wonderful gifts to come into your life. Obviously positive attracts positive, and the negative attracts the negative. You want to be a positive attractor.

9.  Identify a Plan.Going forward, you may need to identify a specific plan to improve the relationship—how you will speak or what you might need to do differently. Be sure that you both agree about who will do what and when and be as specific as you can.

10.  Make Time.Think of the quality relationships that you currently have. Great relationships take time and effort. Be sure that you make time to improve the relationship and know that things just don’t get better by themselves. You have to be actively and intentionally engaged to make things different. This may take time with some individuals, particularly where lots of past, negative baggage exists.

Having healthy, loving, supportive relationships in our lives is what makes life worth living. After all, when we leave this existence all we take with us is what we’ve learned and our relationships. Taking the time to nurture and grow your relationships is well worth the effort.     


© DialogueWORKS

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