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.