If you ask the average person, are you a good listener? They’ll probably say yes. But the truth is, most of us aren’t at all. Between technology and the rapid changes we’re constantly absorbing, not to mention the increasing speed of business and the need to react or perform quickly, listening has fallen by the wayside. That has serious implications for our ability to communicate, personally and professionally.
Listening is an essential soft skill. Before if you were smart enough, you worked hard, and you had the right hard skills, you could land a job — perhaps even your dream job — but today you need more. The job market is increasingly competitive, and if your goal is to climb the career ladder to a leadership position, mastering soft skills like listening are how you will get there.
Listening is also critical in more personal ways, like when you’re talking to a significant other, for instance. It can also help you to nurture friendships appropriately. At the end of the day, foundational skills like listening can make or break a relationship.
The art of conversation
Listening is a key part of how we communicate, and it can be a differentiator when identifying a good, a great or a bad communicator. Non verbal cues are as important as verbal ones, but the give and take in conversations is where that valuable exchange of information and ideas takes place. Someone needs to speak, and someone else needs to listen, and if both parties have mutual respect they can conduct a successful dialogue — virtually or in-person.
Conversation is an art form. The tone and volume of your voice can send cues and signals, as does your body language — how you sit, stand, use your hands and eyes — and how well you listen. Those who are skilled at conversation can successfully convey a range of feelings and emotions, such as excitement and confidence, and on the negative spectrum, anxiety or annoyance. Further, you can do that without ever saying a word.
If you’re a leader, you are most likely a good communicator. If you’re particularly effective, you probably speak clearly and concisely. In turn, your team reacts positively and follows through on your plans and ideas. But while your communication skills might be impressive, you could still need some work on your listening skills.
For instance, do you listen to your team members when they give you feedback or offer nuances that could add depth to ideas, or make plans run more smoothly? If not, consider it. It’s not always easy to listen to ideas, especially if they diverge from your own, but the ability to consider potentially valuable alternative viewpoints is what marks a great leader.
If you can’t be good, then don’t be bad
If your listening skills aren’t up to par, don’t worry. It takes time to develop this ability — that’s why it’s called a skill. But it can be done, and you can always continue to improve.
Here are seven things you can do to improve your listening skills:
1. Get into the right mindset. How you approach a conversation — and listen to your conversational partner — begins with the right mindset. That may require that you check your ego. After all, most conversations are not all about you. There’s another person there, with their own story to tell. Create a safe space for your partner to communicate with you and have a meaningful conversation. They should feel that they can speak freely, without judgment or fear of retaliation. So, take a deep breath, slowly let it out along with any distractions or preconceived notions, and open your mind to new ideas.
2. Put devices away. In 2015, Accenture published results from a study of some 3,600 professionals in 30 countries. Some 96 percent considered themselves to be good listeners, but 98 percent also admitted they spent part of each workday multitasking. That multitasking happened “on conference calls with work emails, instant messaging, personal emails, social media and reading news and entertainment.” It begs the question, how exactly can they listen effectively and engage in all of those activities? Our digital workplace offers myriad distractions via phone, tablet, computer and sundry other devices, but it’s not polite to have your devices out when someone is trying to talk to you. Sorry, merely turning your phone facedown won’t do either.
3. Read the room. Of course, in the era of COVID, it’s more like “read your kitchen table,” since most of us are working remotely, but the sentiment still has considerable value. Part of good listening is employing some mindfulness to determine if the climate or timing is right for a thoughtful conversation, or in depth questions or requests. It may only be appropriate to listen and acknowledge what you hear. If you require more communication, commit to a time to have a more substantive conversation. If you’re rushed, ask for a better time to talk.
4. Be empathetic. Empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels, to essentially walk in their shoes and experience, to some degree, their emotions. So, let them share or vent without interruption. When the time comes, respond thoughtfully. The ability to discern another’s emotions in a meaningful way is foundational if you are listening with the intent to build relationships, communicate more clearly, persuade, influence, and a host of other high level, extremely valuable soft skills that can enhance your ability to lead and interact with others. The connection you make could bear fruit long after the conversation ends.
5. Be present. This is related to putting away your devices. Be curious when someone is talking to you. Be interested. Give them your attention, and when your conversational partner speaks, lean-in and look them in the eye — if that’s appropriate for your culture. When you are fully present, your attention will be focused. There will be few if any distractions, and you will be there ready to listen, to learn, and to engage.
6. Be respectful. Even if after reading all of these tips you realize you’re not — yet – — the best in the listening department, until you hone this particular soft skill, just work to not be a bad listener. At the root of it, being a good listener is about being respectful. So, take note of these things you should not do in a conversation:
- Do not interrupt. It’e impolite to interrupt or over-speak. Give someone time and respect to finish their thought.
- Do not finish their sentence. It’s disrespectful, and it suggests that you think you’re smarter, faster, or don’t have time and need them to hurry. Employ a little patience, and let them finish their thoughts. You might be surprised by how much more they have to say — and how much more you may learn.
- Do not compose your response while someone is speaking. If you’re doing that, you can’t be listening attentively.
- Curb your enthusiasm. Don’t immediately add your similar story, and make it about you. It comes across as a “one-up.” It’s okay to mention you had a similar situation, you’re relating and creating a connection. But withstand the urge to elaborate extensively and shift the focus to you.
7. Respond appropriately. There are often natural pauses that occur in conversation where it’s appropriate for the non-speaking party to chime in. If you’re listening attentively, you’ll hear them, and you can respond appropriately. If you want to, feel free to ask questions to clarify what you heard. This signals that you’re listening, and more importantly, that you hear what you’re being told. Note, it’s okay to disagree. Just do so in a respectful manner. That way you can continue the dialogue, and with it, an opportunity for learning.
There are many benefits of being a good listener in personal and professional life, such as building trust and becoming more productive as you absorb new, or potentially more nuanced information. You will also benefit from improved communication, which will prevent misunderstandings, wasted time, and frustration.
One of the most significant benefits of becoming a good listener, however, is that you will learn more. It’s incredible how much more people have to say if only you give them a chance.
This article was originally published in February 2020 on Medium.