Even in our earliest memories, it seems as though someone is always trying to get us to listen. And yet, as adults we still wrestle with just how to do this ostensibly simple thing well.
Why is that? Every conversation, if you think about it, requires that both parties listen at some point. So we get an awful lot of chances to practice. And, really, how is the act of listening all that different from the act of not speaking? It should be simple, right?
But clearly it’s not. Despite our years of practice and its simple appearance, effective listening still eludes us, particularly when the conversation is about something difficult. And so our teachers, our friends, and especially our partners, tell us repeatedly, “You’re not listening!”
Truth be told, the act of listening is actually a lot harder than it seems. True listening is an active, focused experience, not merely a bit of down time during which we have a chance to formulate our next response.
So, with a nod to Kindergarten teachers everywhere, here are your 8 tips for when it’s your turn to listen:
1. Give the speaker your full attention. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to have a serious conversation with someone whose eyes keep darting to the TV or cell phone, or who is otherwise not able to stay focused on US. So, step away from the texting and tweeting, ignore the grumblings of your inner to-do list and all the other shiny objects in your life, and focus in.
2. Stay relaxed and seated. As I’ve noted in an earlier Life Lines, we’re naturally calmer when we sit but, even more helpful, we seem calmer to others. So, no scary pacing, arm-flailing or finger-pointing, please. Keep your seat and keep your cool.
3. Adopt an attitude of “I wonder” instead of “I know.” Remember that your story about the way things are might not actually be the way things are. Try to understand the other person’s perspective and be open to change and compromise. Keep an open mind. You don’t know what you don’t know.
4. Don’t interrupt, rebut, dismiss or minimize. In other words, don’t listen with a critical ear. Send the prize-winning point-by-point college debater in your head out for coffee, and just LISTEN. Period. (I know, right? It really is a lot harder than it seems.)
5. Watch your non-verbal communication. Heavy sighs, crossed arms, eye-rolling – these and other similar behaviors can convey strong negative messages (Seriously, how would you feel?). On the other hand, a nodding head, an open body posture, and attentive eye contact can communicate your interest in and respect for what the speaker has to say.
6. Monitor your emotional thermostat, and if you notice your temperature rising, ask if you can take a short break to relax and self-soothe. But don’t leave the conversation for good. Agree to do what you need to do to calm down, and then come back. Stay in the game.
7. Don’t put down the other person’s feelings/opinions. You don’t have to agree with them, but don’t make them feel crazy or wrong for feeling the way they do. Believe me, you’ll be very happy you set this tone when it’s time to tell your own side of the story.
8. When the other person has finished speaking, let them know you’ve heard and understood them by acknowledging their feelings and paraphrasing back what you heard. Be sure you really understood what they were trying to say before you begin your own story. And, if it’s clear from their response that you haven’t understood, be open to correction. Listening is hard work; sometimes it takes more than one try to get it right.
Remember that your goal in any conversation, especially one about a difficult topic, is not to win the contest or be right about things, but to solve the problem in a way that allows you to both get what you need. And, paradoxically, the more time you spend listening, the easier the problem solving will eventually be.
If you have other listening tips, please offer them in a comment below. Our listening ears need as much help they can get!
Coming next month: Speak Up! – 8 Tips for When It’s Your Turn to Speak