Active listening is an often-overlooked but incredibly important social skill, both at work and at home.
My very first job interview after graduation did not go as I had expected.
It was with some type of startup in the Chicago loop. I had been staying with my boyfriend and his family in a northwest suburb, so I had to take the train into the city by myself.
In such painfully impractical flats that within just a block of the train station my heels had started bleeding profusely, I excitedly reviewed my resume and repeated breathing exercises to calm my nerves.
Fast forward to the interview:
I sat stark upright in my new tailored pantsuit, notepad and copies of my resume and letters of recommendation carefully laid out in front of me.
When I looked across the conference room table, however, I saw the woman who was supposed to be interviewing me hunched behind her laptop.
She only bothered to look over her laptop and make fleeting eye contact with me when she asked her singular interview question:
Why do you want to work here?
When I began to answer, she immediately slumped back down in front of her laptop.
She was rude and her body language made me feel like I was wasting her time, even though I was the one who’d taken a 45-minute train ride and walked another half mile to get to this “interview.”
It was an unpleasant experience from start to finish — I couldn’t wait to get out of there and I’m glad they never called.
An average of 70% of our days are spent communicating, with about 50% spent just listening to others, and only about 25% actively listening.
What is active listening?
Active listening refers to the use of all senses to understand what someone’s saying as opposed to just hearing it. It shows people that you care about and understand what they’re saying.
Most of the time, it comes in the form of body language.
Think about the last conversation you had where you felt like the other person wasn’t truly listening to what you were saying. Chances are, they were giving off nonverbal cues like looking at their phone instead of you or giving you a blank stare.
It probably felt like you were talking to a brick wall and I’m betting it was a little frustrating.
Most people don’t realize they’re not actively listening. They might think they’re hearing you, but it’s one thing to hear someone and another thing to truly listen and understand.
“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” — Larry King
Active listening goes along with the golden rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated. So, listen to others the way you would want to be listened to.
Most people also don’t know the four most important aspects of good communication:
Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.
When we seek to understand rather than be understood, our modus operandi will be to listen. Often, when we enter into conversation, our goal is to be better understood. We can be better understood if first we better understand.
With age, maturity, and experience comes silence. It is most often a wise person who says little or nothing at the beginning of a conversation or listening experience. We need to remember to collect information before we disseminate it. We need to know it before we say it.
Lose the judgments and assumptions.
Empathetic listening demonstrates a high degree of emotional intelligence.
There is a reason kids do not usually speak with adults about drugs, sex, and rock and roll. The kids already know what the adults have to say. Once a child knows your judgment, there is little reason to ask the question unless the intention is to argue.
If we would speak to anyone about issues important to them, we need to avoid sharing our judgment until we have learned their judgment.
Give your undivided attention to the speaker.
Absolutely important is dedicating your undivided attention to the speaker if you are to succeed as an active listener. Eye contact is less important. In most listening situations people use eye contact to affirm listening.
The speaker maintains eye contact to be sure the listener or listeners are paying attention. From their body language, the speaker can tell if he is speaking too softly or loudly, too quickly or slowly, or if the vocabulary or the language is inappropriate. Listeners can also send messages to speakers using body language.
Applause is the reason many performers perform. Positive feedback is an endorphin releaser for the giver and the sender. Eye contact can be a form of positive feedback.
BUT, eye contact can also be a form of aggression, of trying to show dominance, of forcing submissive behavior. All primates use eye contact to varying degrees. We should be careful about how we use it when listening.
Use silence effectively.
The final rule for active or empathic listening is to effectively use silence. Too often a truly revealing moment is never brought to fruition because of an untimely interruption. Some of the finest police interrogators, counselors, teachers and parents learn more by maintaining silence than by asking questions.
As an active or empathic listener, silence is a very valuable tool. DO NOT interrupt unless absolutely necessary. Silence can be painful. It is more painful for a speaker than for a listener. If someone is speaking, and we want them to continue talking, we do not interrupt.
Rather, we do provide positive physical and even verbal feedback. Silence is indeed golden, especially when used to gather information as a listener.
Fine-tune your active listening skills
Becoming a better active listener is simple. All it takes is some mindfulness and a little practice.
Here are 10 things you can start doing today to practice active listening:
Check your body language.
The key to active listening is body language. Keep your posture open and inviting, and avoid confrontational body language like crossing your arms and looking down.
And be sure you’re not slumping in your chair — even if you are listening, it gives off the impression that you’re not interested in what the speaker has to say.
Nodding occasionally is another great way to show that you’re engaged with the speaker.
Besides being disrespectful, keeping your back turned to someone while they’re talking to you shows that you’re not paying attention to them, and gives off the impression that what they’re saying isn’t important to you.
Eye contact is an important element of body language, and therefore crucial to active listening. Giving the speaker eye contact shows that you’re paying attention, engaging and listening to their words.
Put your phone down while others are talking to you. Your focus should be on them, and it should show.
Take notes when necessary.
Taking notes is a great way to show someone you’re hearing what they’re saying, particularly during meetings and interviews.
It’s good practice to bring a pen and notepad with you everywhere, just in case.
Ask questions for clarification, like “What do you mean when you say…” This shows that you care about the points they’re making and you’re trying to understand.
Summarize and repeat.
Before responding, it’s a good idea to sum up everything the other person said to show that you were paying attention and that you want to understand what they’re telling you.
Instead of just nodding and saying, “uh huh,” comment on what they’re saying to show that you’re listening and understanding what they’re saying.
Practice Makes Perfect
Active listening takes concentration and lots of practice.
Go to every meeting, interview and conversation with the goal of not only listening to understand but showing that you’re listening to understand.
Always remember the golden rule of active listening: listen to others the way you’d want to be listened to!
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