When was the last time you used your active listening skills so intently you let the speaker exhaust his or her words and left them dying to hear your response? Other than the occasional (or not so occasional) instance where you’ve completely checked out of the conversation only to be jolted back to the present with blank eyes staring at you with disdain, it’s likely you’ve never experienced this moment.
It’s ok, you’re in the 99.9% majority on this one—the 99.9% who have yet to discover the magical force of active listening. But, as life commonly shows, being in the majority rarely brings about anything significant in your life (other than the permission to ridicule others for being different).
The reason the scales are tipped so heavily in favor of “getting a word in” is simply due to our inherent existence as social beings. Regardless of your Team Introvert or Team Extrovert allegiance, we all have a desire and need to connect.
The problem with this need is our interpretation of it, rather than its existence. If you want to wrap the world around your finger like a piece of string (who doesn’t?), you’ll want to consider making a drastic change.
Lucky you, “drastic” doesn’t mean “hard.” It simply means making a change that is far outside your current way of showing up in the world. In fact, developing your active listening skills is simply another step in the direction of being more human. And, you can improve (and be motivated to improve) by answering three basic questions.
Question 1: Do you listen to reply or to understand?
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ―Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
The next time you enter a conversation, check-in with yourself and see how many words or sentences your counterpart is able to deliver before your mind is immediately seeking a way to reply. Once you’ve locked in your response, you’ve made it incredibly difficult on yourself to connect with anything else the other person is saying.
Let’s explore a hypothetical, real-life scenario that highlights why this is a problem:
You: “Hey friend, how are you?”
Friend: “I’m doing great! How are you?”
You: “I’m quite swell, thanks for asking. What has you in such a great mood?”
Friend: “Funny you should ask … … … I can’t wait get started.”
You: “That’s fantastic! I can’t wait to hear more about it. You know what’s funny? I just realized the country Hungary isn’t spelled the same as the actual word hungry! How did I make it this far in life?”
You: “Hey friend, do you want to go on a Netflix marathon this Saturday?”
Friend: “No, I can’t, remember? I’m starting my volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity and they need all hands on deck before winter arrives…”
You: “Oh, right! I’m sorry. My mind is all scatterbrained today with that big deadline coming up…”
There are two key observations I want you to make from this scenario. Remember when I asked how far into a conversation you get before immediately coming up with a response?
In this case, the hypothetical “you” made it an impressive one word after the obligatory “how are you” dance. The moment your friend said “Funny…” your mind jumped at the chance to also provide something “funny” to the conversation. Therefore, you basically blacked out from the world around you, while you searched your mental library of recent funnies to share.
While your friend was describing how she had a gaping hole in her heart ever since she graduated college and left her volunteer community behind, you were debating whether you should tell the Hungary story or the story about your dog’s obsessive need to stretch.
Meanwhile (and this is the second takeaway), your attention was on overdrive when you asked a question that required a response that had an impact on your future (binge watching Netflix without feeling guilty about it).
And then, you went to your bag of habits and made up an excuse as to how you could have possibly forgotten about the meaningful information your friend shared with you just that morning. The excuse feels like a safe escape, but don’t fool yourself, your friend walked away from that conversation annoyed or even saddened.
The lesson? It’s time to get better at listening to understand, not to reply.
Question 2: How do you listen to understand?
“If you make listening and observation your occupation, you will gain much more than you can by talk.” — Robert Baden-Powell, first Chief Scout of the Boy Scouts Association
You just had a “coming to Jesus” moment and realized you’re not all that talented at connecting to others (a.k.a. listening). You want to change. How can you take the hypothetical scenario from above and ensure your friend is heard and appreciated?
Be a participant, not a recipient.
When you enter a conversation, it’s a natural habit to see yourself as nothing more than an object for someone to dump their words onto.
This comes from your academic upbringing. For 13 years or more, you sat in classrooms, had a sage on the stage deliver lectures to your empty head, took memorization tests, then forgot everything the next day. By spending 13 years building up the need to be heard, you have transitioned into an adult social life where your focus is on yourself rather than the person you’re talking to.
But, you’re different now. You’ve seen the light and want to change. Rather than giving the appearance of listening, you want to be an active participant in listening. Here’s what you should start practicing today:
- Step away from yourself
Stop constantly searching for stories you want to tell while the other person is speaking. You know your life. Those stories aren’t going anywhere. If they become relevant when it’s your turn to speak, great! If not, they’ll likely come up another day. How often do you only share a story about your life one time?
- Search for the humanity
When your friend is speaking, pay attention to the way the words are being delivered. What’s the tone of the message. Is she speaking softly, energetically, whimsically, or fearfully? Is her body closed off, curled in, wide open, or bopping around? Are her eyes locked onto yours? (Bonus tip: yours should be locked onto hers.)
- Show your humanity
I say this with caution because it’s by far the easiest one to fake. When I say show your humanity, I want you to express authentic reactions to what’s being said. If you think something is funny, smile or laugh. If you think something is confusing, scrunch up your face or tilt your head. What you should not do is focus on mirroring your friend. Sure, your bodily response might be correlated with the expressions of your friend. But, if you’ve mentally committed to mirroring, you’ve stopped paying attention to the words being delivered.
- Respond with questions (not opinions)
Give your friend space to truly let it all out. I want to note, some people have no trouble with this whatsoever. If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. This is another discussion for another day, but there’s a good chance these folks are the worst at listening.
Less self-absorbed folks will only deliver about 10% of what’s on their mind—the long story short version. After having listened to their story, ask a question about a part they seemed most excited about or hurt from (not what YOU were most excited about). These parts of the story are likely the whole reason they’re telling you about it in the first place, so give them a chance to explore those emotions at a deeper level.
Question 3: What benefits will you find from all of this listening?
“Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable — and one of the least understood. Most captains of industry listen only sometimes, and they remain ordinary leaders. But a few, the great ones, never stop listening. That’s how they get word before anyone else of unseen problems and opportunities.” —Peter Nulty, Fortune Magazine
When you start taking on this “listener” identity, you’ll be seen as a mythical unicorn to be awed at by everyone around you. Your connections with friends and family will deepen, your trust with your boss and colleagues will shoot through the roof, and your self-confidence will dominate your self-doubt.
All of this will come by simply keeping your mouth shut and delivering the one or two questions that get straight to the heart of the matter. People will see you as a silent force whose words, when spoken, are masterfully crafted and should, ironically enough, be listened to carefully.
You will be seen as a leader. And, you should see yourself as one, too. There is no age requirement when it comes to leadership. I’ve personally seen it show up in kids as young as four and five. Leadership does not require a powerful job title or a management position. It simply demands from individuals the ability to listen, speak, and act in ways that contribute to concerns bigger than one’s own and the concerns of the people in the room.
Are you ready to level up your life and become an artist at listening? Just like anything in life, it takes practice. Start today, and by some “tomorrow” (it won’t take very long), you’ll embody the powerful aura that comes with listening to understand.
Featured Image via LaBella