Communication is one of life’s most important skills. Being able to express yourself clearly is valuable in both work and personal relationships. There’s no shortage of books and courses on how to improve your word choice, use eye contact, and adjust your body language to get your message across in an influential way.
But what about listening?
Listening matters in our work and personal relationships because it helps us to empathise with others so we can better understand their needs. It creates a genuine connection instead of a transactional one. When we really hear what others are saying, it’s easier to collaborate on setting goals and finding solutions.
Common listening mistakes
When we don’t listen well, we may miss out on important information, frustrate the person we are speaking with, or stumble through negotiations. Here are some signs that your listening skills could use some improvement:
1) You make assumptions.
You presume to know how the other person thinks and feels based on limited information or behaviour. Good listening skills involve asking the other person questions about their thoughts and feelings in order to understand their viewpoint better.
2) You’ve labelled them.
Deciding that the speaker is ignorant, extreme, crazy, naive, and so on, sets you up to be dismissive of their thoughts.
3) You’re rehearsing what you’re going to say.
It’s okay to pause for a moment of reflection after someone has finished speaking before you reply. When you use their speaking time to plan your response, you can’t fully focus on what they’re saying.
4) You interrupt.
Not only is being interrupted frustrating for the speaker, but you could miss out on gathering important information and insights.
5) You think about other things.
Whether you’re simply daydreaming or running through your to-do list in your head, you may find that you aren’t really focused on what the speaker is saying.
Traits of a great listener
Take a moment to think of someone in your life who is a wonderful listener. How do they make you feel heard and understood?
One trait of good listeners is that they will paraphrase what you have said to ensure that they’ve understood you correctly. But the best listeners go a step further.
Great listeners ask follow-up questions that show they have understood the speaker and care enough to want further information. The listener is actively engaged and curious about what the speaker has to say. They give feedback that is supportive, constructive, and which lets the speaker feel safe to share more.
Take a moment to reflect on a conversation you’ve had recently. As you think about the conversation, what was going on for you internally?
Were you invested in what the other person was saying as they were saying it, or were you busy thinking of a response? Were you fully present in the here and now, or were you thinking about upcoming tasks?
What about externally? Did your verbal and non-verbal cues show the speaker that you were attentive and actively engaged? How many times did you check your phone?
Take note of any listening habits you’d like to improve on.
Tips for being a better listener
Do you often find yourself thinking about things that have nothing to do with what the other person is talking about? Do you look around the room or at your watch instead of maintaining eye contact? If you’re overly tired or too busy to have an in-depth conversation, politely communicate that to the speaker and schedule a better time to talk. By making an effort to be attentive, you’re showing the other person that their feelings and ideas are a priority for you.
Let them finish.
Interrupting is not only rude, it can lead to misunderstandings and missed opportunities. Even if it takes a bit longer, give the speaker space to process and explain their thoughts completely.
When you respond to what the other person has told you with a story from your own life, are you doing so to empathise, or to one-up them? When you disagree or challenge their thoughts, are you doing so in a welcome and constructive way? Or are you debating them for the sake of debate? Good listeners are supportive, not competitive.
Asking questions builds trust and allows the conversation to go deeper. It also shows better engagement than smiling and nodding, or saying “mm-hmm” over the phone. Posing open-ended questions like, “How does that make you feel?” or “How can I help?” make the speaker feel supported and comfortable sharing more.
The more the speaker shares with you, and the more attentive you are to them, the more information you will have to work with. When you listen better, communication improves both ways. By listening well, you’ll communicate your ideas more effectively, problem-solve better, and strengthen relationships.
Today’s action steps
- As you listen to others today, practice letting the speaker(s) express their entire thought without interruption before responding.
- At least once today, make an effort to use thoughtful questions to encourage further sharing from the speaker.
- Be present. If you can’t be attentive to what the speaker is saying, schedule a better time to talk. Say something like, “I really want to hear more about this, but I’m preoccupied with X right now. Would it be okay if we sat down together/ grabbed a coffee/ had a phone call in about 30 minutes?” Be sure to set a timer and follow through.
If you want to communicate in a way that gets your message heard, listening to your audience is a wise first step. By strengthening your trust and deepening your connection through listening, communication becomes infinitely easier.
Our world-class coaches on Hello Coach can help you learn how to become a better listener and improve your relationships – both business and personal.
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