A marketing friend said to people he mentors, “Can you ask a lot of questions?”
I think a good part to add to that must be, “Are you a good listener?”
It’s very easy, when someone has just started giving an answer, to assume you know what they’re going to say (and fill in the rest for yourself) and/or start planning your own answer.
True, active listening is quite difficult to do, and needs practice.
I need to remind myself to do it from time to time, but I do get very favourable comments back as a result.
It’s worth thinking about the concept and practice of active listening. Whether you’re conducting an informal or formal business session or even speaking a seminar, make sure you listen ‘actively’.
Hearing is not the same thing as listening. Hearing is when you pick up sound waves and messages are sent to your brain for translation. Listening is a more complex process and means that you have to be actively involved in the communication process: you need to hear, understand, evaluate and respond.
The biggest potential problem is that you think quicker than you hear, so while someone’s talking to you your brain can go off at a tangent or start plotting an answer, and the following usually happens:
- You start anticipating the speaker’s comments
- You anticipate a question they might ask… and your answer to it
- You mishear and misunderstand the message the speaker is sending
- You make an inappropriate response or action
In fact, one of the most common forms of ‘listening’ is ‘combative’ or ‘competitive’ listening. That’s where the listener is more interested in getting their own view or story across. They’re anticipating when there’s going to be a break in the other person’s speech and are just waiting to get their word in. Sometimes they interrupt. It can appear unempathetic, unsympathetic and rude, and can also result in misunderstandings.
Watch how often you do this without thinking – it can be quite scary. Remember, as a colleague, friend or coach, your stories can wait. If a thought does pop into your head that you want to bring up later, just jot it down (surreptitiously if necessary), and then let that thought go.
The best type of listening is when you’re really interested in what the other person is saying – when you genuinely want to know what they’re thinking, feeling and wanting. Be careful here not to be merely ‘attentive’ in your listening (ie, ‘passive’), as the person who is speaking wants appropriate feedback too. Aim instead to be ‘reflective’ or ‘active’ in your listening. Nod, say ‘Mmmm’, ask appropriate questions, consider what they’re saying, and feed back what you think they said.
Just to make it a bit harder for you (this does get much easier and very much more rewarding with practice), also try to understand what level of communication the person is speaking in. Are they in facts, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, or emotions mode? For example, if you tune into what they’re actually saying (the facts of the matter), but they are trying to put across the emotions behind the facts, you can come unstuck.
So that you hear the speaker’s words, factor in the situation, consider what motivates the speaker and what they want (their desired outcome), follow these tips:
- Stop talking!
- If you will need later on to go back over the meeting record the conversation rather than take notes – but do check they’re all right with that as some people get quite uncomfortable being recorded
- Relax (so you give off relaxed vibes), and make the other person feel comfortable (whether you’re face to face or over the phone); keep note taking to an absolute minimum
- Show, with body language and appropriate ‘Mm-hmm’, ‘And…?’ noises that you really do want to hear them and that you are listening
- Listen and try to understand their words
- Don’t listen for gaps so you can get your point in; listen and live in the moment
- Don’t focus on what you’re going to answer with, even if you’re sure it’s the right answer – you might still miss something
- If you’re on the phone, don’t watch the telly / make a cuppa / look at your emails / carry on typing or ironing while you’re listening (you’ll hear – maybe – but you won’t be able to listen properly)
- Ask plenty of the right questions
- Be patient while they’re trying to express their thoughts, especially if your primary representational system is visual and the speaker’s is kinaesthetic
- Take your emotions out of the equations – if you’re reacting emotionally to what someone says, you won’t listen properly – and neither will you stay neutral, and that is what they need from you
- If you disagree, either stay quiet or say something neutral such as, ‘That’s an interesting view point’ (and mean it, too)
- Don’t judge, and try to step into their shoes while they’re explaining
Another useful technique to use is ‘parroting’. This is where you paraphrase what you’ve heard back to the other person. When you paraphrase, say what you think you heard (the facts, the beliefs and the thoughts), and take the time to show you understand their expectations, needs and wants. Try to convey what you picked up of their feelings, emotions and intent. Once the other person has said yes, that is what was meant, follow up with your answer or another question.
If you’re not sure what was said, say so – it doesn’t show rudeness, it shows you are trying to understand. Let them clarify before you speak again, and listen carefully. Keep your body language neutral or relaxed even if you don’t like what they’re saying – just because you have different views does not in any way invalidate what you both think and believe. People always work for the best possible outcome and do what’s best for them in the given situation. What they think is not a personal sleight on you. If they appear angry, remember it’s not you – they need neutrality from you, not argument, gushing empathy or an attempt to placate.
Active listening, like good posture and exercise, needs practice, but it is a valuable skill and can work dividends both in the increased amount of clients you pick up and in bettering your understanding of others’ and your own thoughts.