Friday, April 19, 2013

9 Tips for Being a Better Listener

There is an old saying to the effect that God gave us two ears and one mouth because we should listen more and talk less.

In today's post I will share several simple tips for being a better listener. Individually, they are small behavioral changes. Collectively they will improve your listening immeasurably. For the most part they are simple and easily done. However, they are habitual ways of being with others and so old habits must be broken and new ones formed to make you consistently a better listener.

1. First, stop talking! If you are talking you are not listening. You are too busy trying to encode messages to put your full energy into decoding what your interlocutor is saying.

2. And in a related behavior, don't interrupt. Let the person finish the thought and be sure you understand it before you interject.

3. Avoid the temptation to spend your mental energy formulating what you are going to say next while the other person is still talking. If you are silently planning what you will say, you are not fully engaged in listening.

4. We must also avoid prejudging the person and the message before we have heard and understood both. Sometimes we take one look at someone and believe we know them and their views based on their appearance. We form opinions about people before they have even opened their mouths, based upon their manner of dress, hairstyle, tattoos, the quality of their footwear, and so on. We make an inferential leap from appearance to beliefs about attitudes and viewpoints that very well may miss the mark. At best they are presumptuous, and at worst just flat out wrong. The problem is those preconceived notions become the lens or context through which we see the other person and what they have to say and color our understanding of the message, distorting it to fit into our preconceptions.

5, One very simple thing we can do to be a better listener is simply to look at the speaker. We are surrounded by potential distractions and where the eyes go, the mind follows. This is particularly true when we are an audience member in a public speaking situation. I know that as a student with Attention Deficit Disorder, before such a term was popular, I was a classic underachiever because I was paying attention to everything going on around me--except the teacher! When I got to college, I knew I had this problem so I made a conscious effort to sustain my eye contact with the teacher. I zeroed in on instructors with all my might. And a funny thing happened; I went from being a C+ student to an A student. I didn't get smarter in college, and the work didn't get easier. I simply weeded out all the environmental distractions by focusing my vision on the professor exclusively.

6. We must also be vigilant in avoiding non-listening behaviors when someone is talking to us. If we are watching the game on TV, texting, perusing a magazine, or doing anything else that requires mental focus, we are not listening effectively. Our energy and attention is on something else and at best we are missing the non-verbal part of the message (which many believe is the most important dimension of the message). We are in essence saying to the person speaking to us "this other thing is equally or more important right now than you are"...a terrible message to send to our kids, significant other, or anyone really.

7. Good listeners are also able to empathize with the speaker. Put yourself in the other person's shoes for a moment and see the world through their eyes. Sometimes this is difficult--especially when we think we disagree with what they are saying. But if we want to truly understand someone's point of view, it is essential. The ability to empathize is an essential feature of emotional intelligence and resolving conflict.People who have a hard time empathizing, have a hard time with people in general.

8, We must also work to deliver non-verbal feedback. Good listeners let you know they are with you--and when you have lost them. Head nods, responsive facial expressions, small sounds ("hmmm", "uh huh", "right") all let the speaker know we are following along their train of thought. But the most valuable feedback we can provide is when we DON'T understand, are lost or confused. People want to be understood. Hell, we marry the person in this world who really understands us, right? We do them a tremendous service when we let them know we do not understand them or are lost. If you have ever talked to a stone-faced individual, you know how uncomfortable it is. It is disconcerting to not receive nonverbal feedback, and it affects how we continue or if we continue at all. A lack of feedback says "I don't care" and squelches communication.

9 Another good listening behavior is to ask questions. Good listeners ask questions for clarification, additional information and the like. Good listeners want to make sure they understand you and your message in its entirety so they ask for additional information, contextual information and so on. I once worked as a bartender and was pretty successful at it. The secret to my success was to ask questions! "How was your day?" "How's the family?" "What do you do for a living?". Ask a few questions and then just let them talk. They all said I was a great bartender, but all I really did was listen to them and fill their glass...come to think of it I was a great bartender!

These are some simple things that anyone can do to be a better listener. Try them. I promise you will get results that bring you closer to the people in your life. You will better understand your children, your spouse, your co-workers, if you simply take the time to listen to them.

I have more to say though, about listening and will try to wrap this all up this weekend.

Until then, be well and speak well. And as always, thanks for reading!

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.