Effective listening is an art that’s died off rather quickly over the last few decades. The number of people who actually know how to listen to their personal and professional peers has particularly dwindled drastically over the last decade, with approximately half the world’s population now online and living their lives from behind a screen.
Of course, there’s more than the vast Interwebs to blame for this problem. I was listening to Jim Rohn’s “Take Charge of Your Life” cassette series the other day, in digital format, and he pointed out in this 80s motivational series that the people of that time had also suffered a decline in their ability to communicate effectively. He stated that the proliferation of telephones on a mass scale had taken something away from people’s ability to put what they were thinking into words down on paper as they had did for thousands of years through letter writing and snail mail — ie., at time when people put real thought into their communication before sending it off and wait weeks or months between replies.
Now it seems that we’re so caught up in the noise around us and the thoughts in our own heads, we can’t even give our full attention to what the people we spend time with are saying — to learn what they have to offer us in terms of business and lifestyle quality and what we can do for them. Creating real human connections that exist beyond the wireless waves going in and out of our smartphones requires effective listening skills.
Fear not, my friends. Just because you’re a terrible listener today doesn’t mean you can’t start to make changes toward more effective listening right away and gain an edge in the relationships you cultivate, both professional and personal.
Keep reading for some simple strategies to up your listening game pronto!
1. Never interrupt unless someone is dying across the street.
I put this one on top of the list because, quite simply, it’s the biggest and most common barrier to effective listening in conversation. It doesn’t really matter what your IQ score is, how well you can absorb fleeting information. If you’re talking, you can’t possibly be listening. Many poor listeners are guilty of this.
I suffer from the ability (if you can even call it that) to know where someone’s going with a conversation before they’ve even had a chance to spit everything they want to say out. Because of this, I have a bad habit of interrupting, trying to save them the trouble of having to keep going when I feel I require no further explanation. Fortunately, Peter, an old vacuum sales mentor, pointed this out to me back in the day and helped me to realize that interrupting someone never leads to anything positive, especially in sales.
Why do you interrupt?
- Boredom: You’re more important than they are.
- Impatience: You don’t have time to listen.
- Narcissism: You just don’t care.
- Conversations are contests to you: You’re going to win this battle at all costs.
Guaranteed, when you interrupt, the other person will be thinking something negative about you.
2. Show respect by facing the speaker and maintaining eye contact.
Simple, simple. Point your body toward them to show you’re engaged and not trying to get away the minute there’s a break in the conversation. This is so important, facing away or sidelong to someone you’re talking to implies just that — and crossing your arms implies you’re trying to put up a wall. Learn more about what your body language and movements say about you when communicating with other people.
Spend as much time maintaining eye contact as you can, unless the person you’re speaking with is obviously made uncomfortable by such actions. Even the most shy among us will desire some form of eye contact if the conversation is going well. In other words, forgive those who don’t place importance on eye contact, but don’t expect others to show you the same leeway. Especially when the conversation is a really important one, such as a big business deal hanging in the balance.
3. Show them you understand instead of telling them.
Ever tell someone one of your relatives died and had them shrug, laugh, or pretend they didn’t hear what you just said? How did that make you feel?
Not very good, I’d imagine. The same goes for when someone tells a joke, or shares a pleasant memory only to be stonewalled with an inappropriate look of some kind, or look of indifference from the person they’re talking to.
If someone is telling you something sad, make a sad face — and mean it by tapping into how they’re feeling by allowing your compassionate side to bleed through. If they’re laughing or smiling broadly, tune into that emotion they’re obviously feeling and share it with them. This shows them you’re listening, which will keep the conversation open and productive.
4. Always keep an open mind.
Close-mindedness is one of the easiest ways to stop a potentially productive and enlightening conversation dead in its tracks. Passing judgement or compulsively trying to be the one with all the solutions just makes you annoying and the other person, if they have any self respect, will quickly write you off.
Be present in the conversation, offer feedback that lets the person know you understand what they’re saying, but don’t pass judgement unless they’re specifically asking you to tell them what you think. If you do offer an opinion that the other person disagrees with, don’t try to impose it on them again and again (ie., it makes it look like you’re not listening and just want your opinion/idea to reign supreme).
5. Wait until asked to talk about yourself.
- What do you think?
- What would you do?
- What did you do this weekend?
- Anything new with you?
If the person you’re talking to doesn’t try to engage you, they’re in fact a poor listener. And when you try to engage them again and again by inserting your own quips, facts, stories, etcetera., such conversations end up being nothing more than a contest to see who can say the most before being interrupted. Not healthy!
Tune into this reality and limit the time you spend talking to such types, especially if you currently have a hard time keeping your mouth shut about yourself (and family and friends) in a conversation. If you constantly feel like you’re in a battle with someone to have your own chance to talk, you’ll eventually slip back into old habits and start losing your newly cultivated effective listening skills — interrupting, facing away, showing no empathy, being close-minded.
The best conversations require that both parties are open to listening more than they talk.
Whether you use the 80/20 rule (80% listening, 20% talking), the 5-1 rule (5 mins of listening, 1 minute talking), or communication guidelines of your own choosing, effective listening needs to be on the top of your to-do list of things to learn this year. If you’re already someone who people say is the perfect listener, give yourself a pat on the back and keep doing what you’re doing!
Main Image Credit: Montse PB/Flickr