Most of us are good at talking but when it comes to listening, our skills can usually do with a bit more polish.
Whether we are at work, at home, or out with friends, we tend to be more interested in what we are saying or want to say next, than in hearing what others have to say to us.
Being an effective listener can make you a better boss, employee, parent, partner and friend, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds. It is something we all have to work hard at, a skill that has to be learnt and improved.
Learning good habits
Two distinguished educationalistsi suggested this list of behaviours to make us better listeners:
- Concentrate harder on what others are saying. Your brain works much faster than the other person’s mouth, so pay attention and don’t be distracted by your own stray thoughts.
- Let your body language show you are listening. Non-verbal messages can be three times as powerful as verbal messages, so maintain eye contact with the speaker, nod your head to show understanding, and don’t look around or fidget.
- Don’t become defensive. You don’t have to agree with everything that the other person is saying, but you should try and listen to them. Interrupting with counter arguments before someone finishes stating their case is a sure sign you have stopped listening.
- Learn to paraphrase. Paraphrasing, and reflecting the speaker’s message back in your own words, gives the speaker proof you listened to and understood what they said. (‘So what you are telling me is ...’)
- Listen to feelings, not just to words. The speaker’s body language — the way he or she is standing, their tone of voice, volume and inflection — are all part of the message they are sending.
- Ask questions. Use questions to clarify points, obtain additional information or move the conversation along, but never use them to disguise a counter argument.
Losing bad habits
While these six tips can improve your listening skills, you might also need to consider some strategies to avoid two of the biggest barriers to active listening — knowing the answer and trying to be helpful.ii
When you know the answer, you know what the speaker wants to say even before they finish saying it! Typically you come across as an impatient listener, cutting others off or trying to complete their sentences.
By interrupting the speaker before they have finished, you’re essentially showing that you don’t value what they are saying. If you have a tendency to interrupt because you already ‘know the answer’, a simple strategy is to wait for a few seconds after the speaker finishes and then begin your response.
The second barrier comes from trying to be helpful, often by sharing your wisdom and experience. At first glance it may seem beneficial, but it interferes with listening because you are thinking about how to solve what you perceive to be the speaker’s problem, and it is likely you will interrupt the speaker before they can fully explain themselves.
A good rule is to avoid telling the speaker how you handled a similar situation unless they specifically ask for your advice. Alternatively, let the speaker finish talking and politely ask if you may offer what you see as a possible solution. Remember, they may not want your advice but just an opportunity to be heard.
There they are — six tips and two strategies that will make you a better listener. Most of them are simple techniques, though be prepared to review and change any negative, ingrained habits. The good news is that you should see an almost immediate improvement in your listening skills, and find out lots of things you may have been missing out on!
i Prof. Tom Lewis & Prof. Gerald Graham, writing in Internal Auditor, 08.08
ii Eight barriers to effective listening by Michael Webb,http://sklatch.net/