Developing Your Listening Skills

In the previous post I looked at what it means to be a good listener. In this post I want to look at how you can develop the skills involved in listening and how you can give people the impression you are genuinely listening to them.

The entire point of listening is to gather information from the person speaking. To get the information the messenger wants you to receive, you may have to practice some techniques that help you truly listen to the speaker.

  • Focus on the Speaker – When you place your focus on the person speaking, you’re going to be more likely to understand what they’re trying to communicate. A good technique for focusing is to turn off any extraneous electronics or put them on mute. Focus your eyes on the speaker and not on what is behind them.
  • Establish Rapport – When you can relate to others, you’ll be able to build trust faster. For example, a way to establish rapport is to find common ground with the person speaking. Let them know that you’ve been there, or if you haven’t, let them know that too and ask them to explain more. Show that you’re empathetic, and learn how to mirror the speaker’s mannerisms and speech in an appropriate way.
  • Show Concern – There are numerous ways to show your concern without interjecting your opinion or interrupting the speaker. You can show concern with your eyes, by gently touching their hand or shoulder, and by showing the feeling in your eyes when you look at the speaker. Don’t detract from the speaker with an over-display of emotion, but let them know subtly that you are concerned about what they are saying.
  • Paraphrase – When appropriate, it’s a good idea to paraphrase what the speaker is saying. “I hear you saying that you’re overworked, tired, and stressed, is that right?” Then let the speaker answer whether that is correct before offering any type of solution.
  • Use Non-Verbal Cues – Not only should you pay attention to the body language of the speaker, but you should also provide non-verbal cues to the speaker that you’re supporting them and listening to them. You can do that by using reflection or mirroring. Pay attention to your face, make eye contact appropriately, and lean forward so that they see that you’re listening. Nod your head, smile, or frown, at the appropriate times.
  • Affirm Verbally – It’s also okay to say things like, “Continue”, “That’s terrible”, “I understand”, or, “This is exciting”. Use whatever is appropriate to show that you’re listening to them in a verbally affirming way.
  • Ask Open-Ended Questions – When you want to hear more of what someone is saying, you can ask open-ended questions. An open-ended question goes deeper than a yes or no question and requires a deeper answer. When you do this, avoid asking leading questions which suggests answers to them. An example of an open-ended job interview question goes like this: “Please describe what benefits hiring you will provide our company.”
  • Ask Specific Questions – If you need clarity, it’s okay to ask closed questions. “Are you saying that John is almost always late with his work?” This requires a yes or no, and can help you understand what the speaker is saying so that they can move forward with what they’re trying to communicate with you. When you do this, gesture for them to continue so it doesn’t stop the discussion.
  • Show Understanding – When it’s the right time, you can also disclose your own similar experiences to help the speaker relate to you better. You want to avoid making it all about you, though, so it depends on the situation. But a short sentence such as, “I’ve also received hate mail due to my social media activity, what did you do next?”
  • Avoid Responding until the Speaker Is Finished – It’s important to wait for the speaker to be finished before you start offering your opinion. Allow the person speaking to finish and pause for two or three seconds before you start talking about your opinion to ensure they’re done. The biggest thing to realize is that silence is not a bad thing when you’re trying to actively listen to someone.

When you’re actively listening, do not fidget, eye gaze, overreact, or interrupt. Listen for understanding, and show that you understand non-verbally and verbally. Show that you’re listening by leaning forward and using the right amount of eye contact and the right cues.

Are You A Good Listener?

In the recent set of posts about Difficult Conversations one of the skills that I identified was the ability to be a good listener. So, in the next few posts I want to explore what being a good listener means and how you can develop your skills in that area.

In my opinion, one of the most important things you can learn in life outside of empathy is learning to be a good listener. There are a variety of reasons for this. Outside of the fact that you’ll get to know people better if you’re a good listener, there is also the fact that people will remember you more and like you more if you listen. If you want to be popular, learn to be an active listener.

What It Means to Be a Good Listener

There are some characteristic signs of a good listener that you can teach yourself. With practice, these things will become natural to you. But they do take practice. When you start doing this, you’ll notice that people seem to like you more and remember you more. The main reason is that good listeners often elicit a lot more trust than bad listeners.

  • Make Eye Contact – A person who is really listening to you doesn’t look at screens, in the mirror, or out the window while engaged in conversation. They put the person they’re talking with at the centre of their thoughts and eye contact. You don’t have to gaze into someone’s eyes without rest, but you do need to show that you’re paying attention.
  • Ask Thoughtful Questions – At appropriate times, ask the person you’re talking to questions based on what they’ve already told you. Ask one question at a time and give them an opportunity to answer before interjecting into the conversation.
  • Pay Attention – It can be hard for most people to pay attention, but you can learn tricks to make your brain actively engage with listening to the person you’re talking with. Look at their face, listen to their words, and nod in agreement or disagreement while they talk. If you don’t understand something, ask for further explanation.
  • Avoid Making Assumptions – As was mentioned earlier, ask questions when you don’t understand. Never make assumptions about what someone means, and don’t read between the lines. When in doubt, simply ask for clarification to ensure that you really do understand what someone is trying to say to you.
  • Think before Responding – When it’s your turn to speak (which isn’t until you are able to find a two- to three-second pause between thoughts), always think about the right way to respond before you do it. Remember that the more questions you ask and the more you get the other person to talk, the more they’ll feel as if they know, like and trust you.
  • Don’t Change the Subject – When it is your turn to talk, don’t change the subject. Stick to what the other person is talking about, even if they say something that rubs you the wrong way. If you’re only focused on the topic and not how they choose to express themselves, your overall communication will improve – as will your ability to listen.
  • Don’t Interrupt – It can be hard when you are with someone who is super-talkative and talks fast, but when you’re focused on being a better listener you don’t want to interrupt people. Let them talk, keep listening, and focus on what they’re saying. When there is a two- to three-second pause, you can lean forward, look them in the eye, gesture with your hand, and then speak when they stop talking.

Being a good listener is an essential skill to develop in life. You will use this skill in all aspects of your life – personal and business. The biggest thing to know is that you want to listen to understand, not so that you can reply. When you start realising that, you’ll do a lot better and become an amazing listener.

Be The Change In The World

Two “mantras” that express how I approach life both in the work environment and outside are “Be Kind” and “Be the Change you want to see.” Often as we use Social Media we can see opinions and comments being shared which are not in line with those approaches to life and we see the harshness of people’s comments from the comfortable anonymity of their internet enabled devices.

I was especially mindful of that this morning when I read the comments about Colin Jackson and his revelation of his sexuality.  Many of those I saw commenting across Social Media implied that that they already knew about Colin Jackson and I saw comments such as “tell us something we didn’t know”. It struck me again how quick people can be to express their opinion without thinking about what they are commenting on. They were clearly missing the point. It’s not about them; it’s about Colin and how he feels and being comfortable to share something that is intensely personal with the wider world.

What’s the relevance to the broad topic of my Learning & Development blog you might wonder?  All too often in the workplace, as I touched on in my recent posts about Difficult Conversations,” we can be very quick to make judgements without considering the experience of those we are dealing with. Each individual has been on a journey shaped by the world, the people they have encountered and their own experiences and have made decisions based on that journey.

At age 50 Colin Jackson grew up in a world which is so different to the more accepting environment we live in today. He grew up when people were denied opportunity, were routinely ostracised, and would face violence and intimidation. A world where the idea of taking a same sex partner to a “work event” would have been unthinkable because of the snide comments, the sneering looks, the impact on one’s opportunities at work that would have ensued.

He grew up in a world where being different made one feel scared of being oneself. A world which didn’t accept that you couldn’t be anything other than “normal” as defined by society.

As the years pass of hiding who you are for fear of the repercussions it becomes the norm to be reticent, to use language which introduces and sustains ambiguity when it comes to whom one loves.

Today, we live in a world which is more accepting of people being themselves; although many still face that fear of being themselves because of the reaction of those around them.

Fear is an emotion which it is hard to let go of so as Colin tells the world who he is and who he chooses to love – have a little thought for those that still struggle with the fear they feel.

If you can do one thing, it’s not to sneer and say “yes we knew.” It’s to be the change in the world that allows others to be true to themselves. Above all else Be Kind!

Difficult Conversations – Achieving A Positive Outcome

In the two previous posts I have looked at the skills needed to be able to have difficult conversations and what to do to prepare for them. Now let’s look at how we achieve a positive outcome, preferably for all concerned.

There are some useful steps you can follow to ensure a successful outcome of almost any type of difficult conversation. Naturally, if you have to fire someone, or lay someone off, or tell someone their loved one died, this is not going to be the same as other types of conversations that have solutions. But, you can still use these lessons in all walks of life.

Be Curious

Instead of approaching a problem with, “This is how I see it, and now you must do this”, approach it with the idea that you want to know what the other person thinks and feels before you share your side. If they’re completely unaware of the problem, then you may have to go first, but let them know in the process that you want to know their thoughts and feelings and ideas without judgment. Here are some examples:

“Sue, we really need to talk about that issue with customer service. I have a feeling we see things very differently, and I really want your feedback on this issue.”

“Jack, we need to talk about our budget and how it may be affecting us both. I have a feeling that we see things very differently and I hope that you’ll let me know how you really feel about this topic tonight after we get the kids to bed.”

Acknowledge the Other Side

When the person you’re having the difficult conversation with tells you their thoughts and feelings, don’t just jump in right away with yours. Instead, mirror theirs back to them so that you can make sure that you really do understand them. Only move on to your side when you have received an acknowledgment that you are understanding them completely.

“What I heard you say is that you feel exhausted after work trying to get dinner on the table without help.”

“What I heard you say is that when you get home you need some time to decompress after work before you spend time with me and the kids.”

“What I heard you say is that the filing system we use is confusing and you have ideas to make it better and more effective.”

Clarify the Issues

The purpose of clarifying the issue at hand is to focus the topic on that one issue. Approaching too many issues at once can be hard to grasp and overwhelm any conversation. Even in serious situations such as infidelity, the issue is often not the infidelity but the problem in the marriage.

Being late for work may seem like the main issue as the boss. But, perhaps there is a reason for the tardiness, such as sitting around in the morning with nothing to do? If so, the issue here is really that there is nothing to do. If there was something to do, the employee won’t take time so casually.

On the other hand, a personal issue might be making the employee late. Then you must clarify if the issue is being late or if the issue is the impossibility of getting there on time due to dropping kids off at school on time and the traffic being horrible.

Often an issue can be clarified by figuring out what the deliverables are or what the solution is. In the case of employees being tardy due to having to drop off their kids in the morning, maybe you can implement flex time. There is almost always a solution.

Focus on Problem Solving

Instead of focusing on the problem and placing blame, focus on what you want the solution to look like. In doing so, accept that your solution might not be the best one. Perhaps the other person has a better idea that will work rather than your idea. When the focus is placed on solutions, the problems usually disappear faster.

The reason it’s faster is because you stop complaining about things that cannot change and won’t change. You can’t go back and not be late. You can’t unmake a mistake. But you can move forward and try to avoid making the same mistake again if it’s possible.

For example, if you have an employee who is always late, why are they late? Do they just not care about your rule? Usually, that is not the case. Find out why, then figure out what you can do. If there is no way around the fact that you must have someone answering phones on time each day, you may need to find someone else to answer the phones.

While sometimes the solution seems harsh, you have to determine what you want the solution to be, what they would like the solution to be, and how you can meet in the middle if it’s possible at all.

Facing difficult discussions is really all about learning problem-solving techniques. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the receiving end or you’re the one calling the meeting. You can approach it thinking about solutions to problems rather than just the problems. Don’t look at how difficult something is; look at it as a problem that can be solved, and you will succeed.

How to Prepare for a Difficult Conversation

In the previous post I looked at the skills you need in order to be able to have effective difficult conversations. Now I want to take you through the steps you can follow when preparing to have that difficult conversation.

When you know that you must have a difficult conversion – whether you’re on the receiving end or you’re the person who is arranging the conversation – there are some things you can do to make it easier.

  • Know Your Purpose – Why do you want to have this difficult conversation to start with? What are you hoping will result from it? Be sure to know your goals and objectives in advance of even mentioning the talk to the other person or people involved.
  • Don’t Make Assumptions – Whether you’re on the receiving end or not, do not make assumptions about how the other person is going to react. It’s okay to go over different scenarios in your head so that you know how you might deal with them effectively, but do not assume that you’re correct about them. You have no idea what their real thoughts or intentions are until they share them.
  • Know Yourself – If you know that you’re an emotional person, do things to help prepare yourself for the discussion such as avoiding caffeine, taking anti-anxiety medications if you normally use it, meditating, or taking a run or walk in advance of the meeting.
  • Is Your Opponent / Partner Aware There Is a Problem? – Before approaching the person, ask yourself if they are aware that there is a problem. Often something that seems obvious to us is not even on the radar for the other person. If they’re going to be blindsided, acknowledge that your lack of communication is the cause.
  • What Are Your Fears? – Before going into this difficult conversation, what do you fear about the potential discussion and its outcome? Often these fears are unfounded, but naming the fears can help you figure out how you’ll talk to the person.
  • What Part Is Your Responsibility? – If you can determine from your perspective what your responsibility is in the situation, you need to address that up front when you enter the discussion. That will calm their fears and make them realize right away that this is not a blame game discussion.
  • Watch Videos – This is a great video from Ted Talks headlining Celeste Headlee, a writer and radio host, where she talks about ten ways to have better conversations. This can work for many types of difficult conversations.
  • Seek Advice – If you’re unsure, you can also seek out advice from someone like a counselor or a mediator. Mediators’ sole focus is on helping people get through difficult conversations and negotiations. Find one that is well versed in the area you need help with.
  • Practice – One of the biggest things you can do to get better at having difficult conversations is to practice. Keep having the conversations, acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them, so that you can do better each time.

Preparing for a difficult conversation is just as important as having the conversation. If you are ready and have taught yourself about communication, conflict resolution, and have a good understanding of human nature and how to get to solutions, you’ll end up doing great.