Listening is an incredibly important skill. Yet we often take the skill of listening for granted; Everyone can listen, right? Wrong. The world is overflowing with people who can hear, but not listen. Listening is simply not self-evident – for some it comes by nature, most of us must learn.
I’m a social extrovert. I love to talk, express myself, and vividly participate in conversation. They’re not all bad characteristics, but shame on me. Because all too often, I’m a lousy listener. The fact that I acknowledge this is of course a first, but I infuriate myself for forgetting to listen. When deep in conversation, I may get so carried away that yes, I hear the replies, but I’m too focused on providing my own content to really listen. This goes especially for when I’m communicating with my children, but also in social and work contexts. Recognize yourself on any level? I salute you if you can genuinely say that you have never found yourself in a similar situation, but I think most of us have been there. In fact, I believe a lot of us may consider ourselves much better listeners than what we are in reality.
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” – Dalai Lama XIV
We recently held our final PTA board meeting before going on summer holidays. There was a lot to discuss and several ideas and opinions shared. We’re a tight knit group and have a lot of fun together, and even though we work hard, it’s still mainly a fun hobby. Mid-meeting, suddenly another mother blurted out “You keep putting words into other’s mouths!” I apologized immediately, no-one else seemed to react, and the happy chit-chat and discussion continued as previously. But not on my behalf. I was genuinely apologetic. Once she said it out loud, I realized it myself too. I acknowledged that I had finished off other people’s sentences and jumped to conclusions mid-sentence several times that evening.
Listening instead of interrupting
There are great cultural differences to what the norms of conversation are. Most people however appreciate being allowed to finish their sentences, be heard and not interrupted. I presume the majority don’t intend to be mean or rude (I know I don’t), but that’s exactly what it is. It’s rude to cut someone off mid-sentence. It can feel hurtful to have your sentence finished off for you or have words put into your mouth. And in reality, when we’re not providing our undivided attention to really listen to what’s being said, chances are we’re probably unknowingly missing out on a lot. Were we to allow everyone to finish and explain themselves, I believe the world would have a fraction of the conflicts it faces today.
Then why don’t we do that? Why is it sometimes so difficult to let someone speak their mind before we interrupt them? Are we afraid of what they may say? Not interested? Too self-centered? In too much of a hurry? I honestly don’t know. I do however know though that this is a challenge that I’m going to step up to: Learn to become a better listener.
Taking in context
I’m generally a quick reader. I can skim through text and pick up relevant key factors with quite an ease. This is a perk in many ways and a valuable skill. Somewhere along the line though, this skill has apparently gotten blended into my listening skills. The difference between written context and verbal speech is that I won’t offend anyone if I make conclusions along the way as I read for myself. I can also quickly adapt my conclusions as I continue skimming through the text. In conversation though, commenting a conclusion or interrupting someone before their finished speaking just isn’t the same.
According to Leslie Shore, author of a book called Listen to Succeed, “When we begin working on a reply before the speaker is finished, we lose both the complete information being offered and an understanding of the kind of emotion present in the speaker’s delivery.” Spot on.
How do you become a better listener?
I compiled this list through various sources, among others, articles I came across in Harvard Business Review, Psychology today and Scientific American. They’re all pretty great articles, HBR as a publication is a personal favorite, so I’m slightly biased to say their article was also the best out of these three. The internet is full of great advice and publications, but if you want to skip corners, take a look at the below list:
- Be curious! Focus on wanting to know more, be interested. You never know what you could learn!
- Know your limits – if you’re not up for conversation, say it right away and explain yourself: “I know this is important to you, but I’m exhausted/stressed/too busy to be able to provide you with my full attention right now. Can we please talk about this tonight/first thing tomorrow..” It’s always better to be honest than to listen halfheartedly or pretend you’re paying attention – especially in social context. If it’s work or business, well, (wo)man it up and do what you need to do.
- Pay attention to and understand what is being said. Now this sounds obvious, but in practice, it’s not. If you don’t understand their point (or your mind wandered), ask for clarification! More than often the speaker will appreciate it, and also re-formulate their wording.
- Make a conscious decision to whether you should just listen and follow-up with possible additional questions or if your interrupted input is genuinely necessary. Be rational. Interrupting isn’t very polite, but sometimes it is simply necessary. Be aware of the situation and the context.
“Empathy deals with shared experiences — sometimes we don’t have many, but in the big picture we’re all really more the same than we are different.” – Philip Tirpak
- Try to avoid thinking about your next reply while someone else is speaking. There’s a great chance your prediction of what the other person is going to say is off. Choose to rather listen to the end – then think of your reply. Pausing ever-so-slightly before you reply will also show that you weren’t just waiting for the other person to finish talking, but that you’re also taking a brief moment to consider what has been said.
- Participate in the conversation but don’t rule it. Share your thoughts with an open-mind and listen to others with the same attitude. Ask for input and clarifications. If you’re not giving a presentation, don’t act like it.
Becoming a great listener, or even a good listener, should be on all our bucket lists. I’m going to genuinely work on this skill, not just for myself, but for everyone around me. My spouse and kids deserve to be heard. My friends and extended family deserve a good listener. And my employer and co-workers shouldn’t go unnoticed. I can’t (won’t) change my extrovert personality, that’s who I am, but I can change how I interact with others, and so can you.
A pat of good luck on the back for all of us accepting the challenge of learning to listen!