The best way to understand effective listening techniques is to use a real life example. Imagine that you are having coffee with your friend, Elizabeth. She seems preoccupied and flustered, eventually asking you if you have a few minutes to talk about something that is happening in her life.
You, on the other hand, are worried about how you are possibly going to accomplish your job priorities before a deadline coming up later today. Reluctantly, you agree to spend a few extra minutes with Elizabeth as requested. The problem is that your mind is actually on that spreadsheet that you need to finish creating. As a result, all you can do is to give your friend a blank stare when she asks for your opinion.
The first rule of listening is that it is a choice. If you fail to direct your full attention toward the person with whom you are speaking, you may well miss crucial details. Worse still, your friend will quickly become aware that your mind is elsewhere, resulting in hurt feelings and perhaps even a marred friendship.
Bottom line: Make listening a priority. To that end, focus your mind on the other person, stop talking about your own issues and really hear what they have to say.
As a human being, you enter all interactions with your own unique set of values, preconceptions and goals; that goes without saying. However, that does not mean that you shouldn’t do your best to put them aside in favor of getting as true a picture of what the other person means as possible.
To broaden our example, let’s go back to you and Elizabeth in the coffee shop. She tells you that she just got into a heated argument with her roommate this morning that has upset her a great deal. As it happens, you know her roommate and dislike that person because of disagreements the two of you have had in the past.
Again, it comes down to choice. You may have the urge to blast the roommate – not because of what Elizabeth is saying now but due to your previous grudge. As soon as you take that course of action, you have stopped listening to the person in front of you and have regressed toward the settlement of your own imagined or real score.
Bottom line: Don’t make it about you. Take in what the person is saying in the here and now, and be curious about their individual situation. Ask questions to clarify, a technique that will help both of you to elucidate every aspect.
Effective listening techniques involve more than interpreting words with the ears; listening is a whole body process. Have you ever read a note or text message from someone and found yourself wishing that you were face to face? That’s because being in the same room with someone gives you access to a wide variety of additional cues that can help you to take your listening to the next level.
As you sit in that coffee shop with Elizabeth, she is sharing the details of her earlier argument with her roommate. You ask her how the incident made her feel, and she is unable to articulate her emotions. However, you can see that her fists are clenched and her face is flushed. Based on your years of friendship with her, you know that these are outward signs that Elizabeth is angry. In response, you say, “I imagine you must be furious right now.” As soon as you validate her emotions, Elizabeth is able to elaborate on exactly why she is so upset.
Bottom line: Take into account the many physical and vocal cues that the person gives off. Good listening means recognizing them and making educated guesses on what they mean. Even if your hunch is sometimes wrong, it may still help to expand the conversation and help the other person to express themselves more thoroughly.
Just as effective listening is an art, so is the ability to convey information, concepts and feelings to others. When you are processing what someone is telling you, recognize that it may take them some time and trial and error to present the information accurately. With that in mind, resist the impulse to shout out solutions or give remedies, especially before the person has finished exploring the issue.
In our little scenario, Elizabeth is expressing her frustration with her roommate. Instead of jumping in to agree, you simply sit back and let her talk. She then goes on to talk about her sadness that the relationship is so difficult as well as her disillusionment that things between them have not been as rosy as she had originally hoped they would be. Because you were an active yet patient listener who gave her the time and space to fully explore her feelings, both you and she learned that the issues she is confronting are more complex than they initially appeared on the surface.
Bottom line: Effective listening takes time and perseverance. Give it space to breathe and become, and you will be rewarded.
Empathy, the ability to imagine yourself as the other person, is one of the greatest gifts of good listening. When a listener is empathetic, he or she can communicate that their understanding of the issue goes deeper than just a recognition of facts.
After truly listening to Elizabeth’s story and giving her the time and attention she needs, it will be your empathy that she will remember long after you have gone your separate ways. Elizabeth will recall that you were able to put yourself in her shoes, capturing and reflecting back your perceptions of her feelings after her difficult interaction with her roommate. In the end, she will think of you as someone who actually understands because you were willing to take the time to truly hear her and experience her feelings through her own point of view.
Bottom line: Empathy is the quality that transforms merely hearing someone out into actual understanding.
The final hallmark of an excellent listener is their tendency to get feedback from the other person as they talk. Periodically asking questions can help to illuminate the situation and can also reduce misunderstandings.
Throughout Elizabeth’s recounting of her disagreement earlier in the day, it is helpful to make inquiries and seek clarification where necessary. What exactly happened to set off the argument? What did the roommate say? How did Elizabeth respond? Gaining ongoing intelligence gives you the information you need, but that’s not all. It helps the other person to know that you are paying attention throughout the telling of the tale.
Bottom line: Use questions and reflective techniques to gain clarification and show the person that they have your full attention.
In sum, hearing is a sensory process that happens almost all of the time for most of us. By contrast, effective listening is an intentional undertaking that requires focus and skill. The best way to improve as a listener is to practice these basic techniques until they become a natural part of your repertoire. Without a doubt, you and the people you care about will notice the difference.