When was the last time you listened? I don't mean simply used your ears, I mean really listened.
Listening is more than just refraining from talking, or nodding in the right places, it is about really focusing on not just the words that someone is saying, but the meaning, and perhaps emotion, behind them. Often when we think we are listening, all we are really doing is thinking about what we want to say next. It's quite easy to spot someone who's doing this too, how many times has someone you're talking to started to address the point they think you're trying to make before you've even finished, or those passive listeners who when asked a question on a video call will reply with something along the lines of “sorry, can you repeat that, the connection went bad”. Yet whilst we appreciate the skill of talking (or presenting), we tend to overlook the skill required in listening.
Listening in this sense is referred to as “active listening” or “empathic listening” and it's something that I've historically not been very good at. To understand it better I found it useful to reflect on situations where I have felt frustrated by someone who hasn't been actively listening. This helped me to appreciate, based on the effect they had had on me, the effect that I have on others when doing the same things. Active listening, I concluded, is not:
There is a tendency, when someone comes to you with an issue or frustration they have, to try to fix it for them - but often, I find, this is simply giving the person a fish - It doesn't really help them. You may have given them an answer, but you haven't shown any of the workings out. If it turns out to be the wrong answer, they'll blame you, yet if it's the correct one they won't necessarily appreciate why and will be stuck again next time. It's a no-win situation.
It is also possible that the individual doesn't want a solution at this point in time, perhaps they just need to explain their frustration to someone else. By solutionising here it it can appear patronising - implying that they are only frustrated, or have the issue because they didn't have the answer that you've just given them.
You know what they say about assuming. It can be very easy to do though, especially if you're not truly listening. Assuming is the result of not having all of the required information - you can choose to make an assumption, or you can choose to take the time to understand and learn. Always choose to learn.
3. About you
There comes a moment in everyone's life when you realise that, sometimes, just sometimes, it's not all about you. For most this happens in childhood, others need a bit more time - sadly I think I was one of the latter. In all seriousness though, in order to be a good listener you need to appreciate the art of listening to others and start to value hearing what they have to say more than them hearing what you have to say. Stephen Covey conveys this nicely in habit 5 of his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.
This one doesn't need too much explanation I hope. Don't be that guy.
If something is important to someone, it shouldn't be dismissed - this is especially true when emotion is involved. Understanding what others find important, though, can be tough. I think this really comes down to Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, the skill of reading and appreciating the emotions of others.
It's also worth noting that there is a definite link between the last three, in that they often occur inadvertently. By which I mean that very few people consciously mean to revolve a conversation around themselves, one-up people or dismiss others - they do it through not having properly listened. Here's an example:
- Martin: Morning Linda, how was your weekend?
- Linda: Morning, it was good thanks. I ran my first 10km on Saturday.
- Martin: Oh cool - I just went for a 50km cycle. I went past that new restaurant - have you been?
Names may have been changed
Martin probably feels as though he's engaged well in the conversation, but really all he's done is brought it back to himself and potentially come across as trying to one-up Linda, whilst also dismissing her personal achievement of having run her first 10km. It's a slightly contrived example, but one that I'm sure you can relate to.
Active In Practice
How, then, do we avoid these and put active listening into practice.
1. Open Questions
Open questions are questions that require more than a one-word answer and are a great way of encouraging people to open up and share information. They allow you to control the flow of a conversation, without dominating whilst also showing your interest in what they have to say. They will usually start with one of the following: Who, what, when, where, why or how.
2. Prompting Statements
Often you don't need to control the flow of the conversation and this is where prompting statements come in. Where open questions are about details, prompting statements are about the broader picture. Where open questioning might ask “Where did you go this weekend, who did you go with, how did you find it…”, a prompting statement might be “Tell me about your weekend”. The latter allows the person much more choice in what they say.
There is definitely a balance to be had between prompts and questions, and it really depends on how conversational the person is being. This can vary between individuals and even different conversations with the same individual.
3. Reflecting & Summarising
Reflecting back key words during a conversation is a great way of letting the other person know that you have really listened and picked up on aspects of what they have said. You might focus on a particular feeling that the person has mentioned, or use a prompting statement like “it sounds like…”.
Summarising is a useful way of pulling together the conversation so far. It helps you to check you've understood properly, and gives the other person an opportunity to explain further if not.
4. Silence is golden
A good sales person will tend to use silence well. They understand that the pause in conversation, even if it becomes so long it verges on awkwardness, helps the other person to comprehend what you've said and allows them to feel like they are in control of the conversation. It can also, due to peoples desire to avoid the awkwardness, lead them to open up and reveal more than they otherwise would. Most importantly in this context though, it also shows that you're listening, are genuinely interested in what they have to say and are willing to wait for their answer. We can take those lessons from sales and apply them to any conversation, the principles are the same.
5. What do you think?
I love the phrase “what do you think?”. When you begin to ask people what they think, you start to become genuinely interested in the answer. It doesn't necessarily happen instantly, but the more you do it, the more you appreciate the value of another's viewpoint. Eventually you find yourself asking, not because you think you should, or because you read that it was a good idea on a blog, but because you truly want to hear what they have to say. At that point, you'll be active listening.
For me, active listening is not something that I found came intuitively, and to a degree it still doesn't, but I've found that, like anything, through practice it starts to feel more natural. To master active listening we have to value telling others what we want to say less than we value hearing what they have to say.