Recently, I was talking to an individual whom I truly like, but we were in a crowded room filled with lots of people I knew. My eye wandered over my friend’s shoulder as I mentally prioritized those I needed to contact as soon as our conversation ended.
My friend tried to catch my eye and drag me back into our conversation. I nodded mechanically while my eye kept sneaking over her shoulder to take in the social patterns developing in the room.
Eventually, she said, “I’ve lost you. Let’s talk later.”
I felt terrible, but I knew she was right. I was pretending to listen as I recited a mental tally of whom I needed to talk to before the evening ended.
Situations like this can range from annoying to destructive. According to Pamela Cooper, Vice President of the International Listening Association, “Listening is really hard work and it takes a great deal of concentration.”
If you want people to listen to you, you must have the mental toughness to be brutally honest with yourself.
Think about your own listening skills, or better yet, thicken your skin and ask a good friend or your spouse for their honest evaluation. To be a good listener it takes more than just hearing what the person is saying—it requires a conscious desire, conscientiousness, and practice.
People don’t listen to you because you don’t:
1. Stay Engaged
To be a good listener, you have to be present—which means not being preoccupied either physically or mentally. Dump the clutter from your mind and pay attention to what is being communicated to you now.
When you are distracted by other people or technology, it makes the other person feel unimportant.
- If you’re in a busy room, focus on the person with whom you are talking rather than what is going on around you
- If you’re talking on the phone, turn your back on the computer and give the person your full attention
- Stop thinking about arguments, reports to be finished, or where you are going to dinner
2. Open Up Your Body Language
Body language communicates what you are thinking and feeling more accurately than the words you use.
No matter how interested you appear to be, if your feet are turned toward the nearest exit you are signaling that you are anxious to make an escape. Crossing arms or hands in pockets also exhibits nervous behavior. These small physical gestures can discourage others from approaching you.
- Lean forward and nod occasionally
- Face the person who is speaking
- Open up your posture by uncrossing the arms
- Make eye contact
3. Leave Your Assumptions Behind
If your brain thinks that it knows the answer, it will only accept information that confirms your beliefs.
Making assumptions and generalizations are hard-wired into our thinking. But, if you can generate genuine interest in the topic, or person, you can over-ride this tendency and create an open mind.
When listening to another person, it may help to assume you know nothing about what they are telling you.
- Check your assumption out loud with the person with whom you are talking
- Ask a question such as, “So you mean…” and let the person confirm or correct
4. Ask Questions
The two most powerful words in a conversation are: “Tell me.”
Questions are incredibly important in any conversation. People like to be heard, and when you ask a question, it signals that you are not only listening to them but that you are also hearing what they have to say.
If you take an genuine interest in the activities of others, they will return the favor.
Questions allow you to dig deeper and discover more about specific areas on which you are unclear so you can gain a better understanding of a person’s priorities, values, and interests. Because of this, it is easier to connect with others and develop meaningful relationships.
- Open-ended questions provide great opportunities for people to elaborate on specific topics
- Questions keep conversations flowing
- Asking for clarification helps you understand someone’s point of view
- Asking questions of yourself will keep you from becoming defensive
5. Create Empathy
Sometimes we don’t really want to hear what other people have to say! We love our own opinions and thoughts and would prefer to shut out those of others.
Once we close down, however, we risk becoming judgmental and opinionated. More importantly, we miss out on what others have to share with us.
If you can develop the ability to hunt out shared experiences, it is easier to take in the big picture and create empathy.
- Suspend judgment—even if you have firm beliefs on the subject
- Take in the entire message with no interruptions
- Seek out bits of information with which you agree so you can find some shared ground
- Place yourself in the other person’s shoes
6. Shut Up
There is a time to speak and a time to shut up and listen. Effective communication requires reciprocity. If you aren’t a good listener, do not be surprised when others don’t make listening to you a top priority.
- Shut up if you don’t have something significant to contribute to the conversation
- Shut up if you can’t find something positive to say
- Shut up if you don’t intend to hold your part of the bargain
- Shut up if your only contribution is to whine and complain
How have you become a more effective listener?
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