You know I was a talk show host in a previous life. And I always said they should call it a listen show. Because the talking was the easy part. The listening was the challenge.
I mean really listening to people who called in to share their views. Or even to the experts I interviewed. It’s easy to stop paying attention, isn’t it? Especially when you’re hearing something for the umpteenth time. (And if you’ve ever tuned in to a talk show, you know there’s a lot of that.)
One thing I learned: people have a deep need to be heard. I’m convinced most people go through their day uncertain whether anyone ever really listens to them. Which means when you do listen, you become an oasis in a desert of indifference.
That’s good for your business. And your friendships. And your home life.
So here are seven suggestions for better listening.
- Set an intention to listen. It won’t happen by accident and there are a ton of barriers that will get in the way. Environmental ones like noise in the room or a bad phone connection. Emotional barriers like boredom or distraction or even not really liking the person I’m supposed to hear.
- Give up the idea that you can multitask. The brain science says we don’t really focus on two things at once, we flip back and forth between them. And they both suffer as a result.
We all know driving is impaired by talking on the phone. Guess what? Conversation is impaired by driving. Research at the University of Illinois found when people chat and drive at the same time, they lose comprehension and retention of what they’ve heard.
- This may sound obvious, but if you want to listen, you’ll need to stop talking. Yes, I know, duh. But don’t you know someone who never seems to zip it?
It’s easy to talk too much. We’re enthusiastic about our work, about our products, about what we can do for our clients. It’s easy to just run off at the mouth. So, if I want to be a better listener, I need more economy in the way I express myself. Still with enthusiasm. But not so many words.
- It helps, if you want to be a better listener, to face the person full-on. And think about listening with your entire body. Of course we listen with our ears. But imagine yourself listening with the whole of you. As if you’re a satellite dish receiving the signal. It’s much more powerful.
And looking at the person helps. Watching their physical cues as well as listening to their words.
- You might sort of mentally restate what the person just said, silently, in your own head. Because most people say…what?…150 words a minute, give or take. But we could listen to three times that much.
So there’s extra brain power there. And that can lead to the brain wandering off in any number of other directions. It helps, when the person is pausing, gathering their thoughts, to just restate what they said. It’s a way to stay focused on the conversation.
- Make it a point to listen all the way to the end of the person’s sentence. Even when you’re very sure you know exactly what they’re going to say.
It can be so tempting, because we’re in a hurry, because we want to move on already, or maybe because we want to talk ourselves…to finish their sentence for them. Or to just cut them off, and start talking before they’ve finished their thought.
- And after you’ve listened all the way to the end of their sentence, pause for a beat before you jump in.
That space is so welcome. And it can be a valuable information-gathering tool. Most people aren’t that comfortable with silence. So if they pause, and you don’t jump in to fill the gap, they may very well fill it themselves. With information that you wouldn’t even have known to ask for. You can learn a lot about people with that pause.
When you’re in the part of a sales conversation that many experts call “probing” (I hate that!) that extra bit of intel can make the difference between coming up with a proposal that gets you the business and one that falls flat.
You’ve probably heard people talk about “active listening” or “reflective listening.” Sometime I’ll tell you what I recommend instead. (The story involves the smarty-pants 19-year-old I once was – you’ll get a kick out of it.)
Meantime, share your own tips for better listening. Or a story about that time you meant to listen but missed the mark.