Growing up, we had a lake house about 15 miles from our home where we would spend the entire summer. It wasn’t uncommon on any given day to have a dozen teenagers traipsing about riding jet skis, raiding my parents kitchen, or basking in the sun on the dock. In addition to my dad’s never ending trips in town to refuel on gasoline and groceries, there was another constant on these summer days: the small crowd sitting around my grandmother. My mother would shake her head and smile at the way my grandmother could get teenagers (girls and boys) to spill their guts to her. When my sister and I asked my grandmother what she said or why our friends loved spending time with her, she would say “I don’t say anything, I just listen.“
The ratio in which our bodies are made is not a coincidence. Having two ears, two eyes and one mouth is deliberate. We should spend more time (twice the amount in fact) listening and observing than spouting our own wisdom.
Active listening is an intentional, learned and focused skill rather than a passive skill that happens with no real intention or effort. Take typing as an example of a passive skill (once you’ve mastered a keyboard). You aren’t thinking of physically typing each character, but rather you are thinking about the words you want to type and the typing happens with minimal mental effort on your part. If you listen like you type, then you are not effectively using the most important skill you possess.
Since I have committed myself to active listening (professionally and personally), I have realized that I am a terrible listener when I am not intentional. When expected to listen during a conversation, my natural tendency is to do something else while passively listening or to think about how I will respond instead of fully listening to all of what the other person has to say. If I resist those urges, and focus on what my counterpart is saying, the result is deeper engagement which allows me to better contribute to our relationship. A few tips for being an active listener:
- Tactical Empathy – when you pay attention to another person and understand their world, you offer tactical empathy. This does not mean you have to agree with them, rather you need to understand them and the emotions behind their opinions in order to approach them intentionally. This requires you to put down your phone, look at the other person and really listen to what they are saying to you.
- Labeling – restating someone’s opinion or feelings to affirm you understand their world. Remember to take the “me” and “I” out of it. When your response starts with “I am hearing” or “It seems to me”, you are switching the conversation to you which can cause others to take a defense or assume your motives are “what’s in it for me”. Also remove the unnecessary encouragers such as “uh huh”, “yes” or “I understand”. Instead, let them finish their thought and be intentional with your word choice to offer tactical empathy by using “It seems / sounds like / looks like…” and then label their emotions or opinions as a factual summary.
- Pause – after labeling someone’s emotions to articulate empathy, it’s important to pause and allow the other person to affirm your understanding or provide more information to help you better understand. Pauses in conversation can feel awkward at first, so give yourself grace as you put this one into practice. If you’re like me, try counting silently (“1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi…“) or sitting on your hands to assist in committing to the pause. When giving someone the space to reflect on the labeling of their opinions, often times it will spark more dialogue and information to deepen your understanding of their opinion.
- Care-frontation – when conversations have the potential to be confrontational, acknowledge the issue in a secure and safe way. Remember: separate fact from story when approaching a potential conflict – a fact is a measurable result that would likely be caught on camera if the interaction was recorded whereas a story includes opinions, judgements or interpretations of the fact(s). Example: My colleague was late and did not speak during the meeting vs My colleague is mad and does not appreciate the effort I put into our project. If you feel there is validity in the story, and there is blame to be laid, perform an “accusation audit” to outline the frustrations your counterpart could be experiencing. Frustrations often appear more dramatic when stated aloud. Make sure to apologize if (but only if) there is fault you need to own. Example: “I noticed you were late to the meeting and didn’t speak. I understand you may be frustrated because I didn’t prepare my part of the presentation until 2 days before our session and I am sorry for that.”
- Pause – this one is so important it is worth mentioning again. When you pause after attempting a collaborative approach to resolving conflict, it often diffuses the situation and gives opportunity for open dialogue. “1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi…”
- Strive for “that’s right, instead of “you’re right” – when labeling or performing an accusation audit, you are not looking for someone to tell you that you are right, you are looking for them to affirm that you understand them. When you strive towards “that’s right”, you can move forward with a collaborative approach to resolving the issue and towards a better relationship.
When implementing these tactics in day-to-day conversations, it may feel awkward at first. So did riding a bike or walking! In time, when used consistently, I am confident these tips will improve the relationships in your professional and personal life. Happy (active) Listening!