“I didn’t hear you.”
“Well,” he says.
“That’s because you weren’t listening.”
I expect that, for most of us, this is a pretty common conversation. And yet, if we were to ask any number of people to rate the significance of listening in being a good leader; building good relationships; or doing good business, the ability to listen well would be among the most important.
So why are we not better at doing it?
Well for one thing, there is a possibility that we assume, because we come equipped with two ears, listening is something that will naturally follow. However, while hearing may come naturally, listening certainly does not. And yet, little attention has been paid to teaching us how to use our ears for the purposes of actually absorbing what is being said.
Think about it. When we were little children we were taught to read and write. In high school we might have learned how to debate effectively or write a coherent essay. And, Later on, we might have had instruction on effective presentation techniques, or business writing. We recognize these as developed skills. In comparison, there is little such instruction on the topic of listening because we tend to believe that hearing and listening are synonymous.
The truth is, most people can hear. Listening on the other hand involves engaging, not only the ears, but also the brain, in the process of receiving new information and assimilating it in the way in which it was intended. Fewer people are good at that.
So, the question is, how do we get to a place where we listen more?
I have a few thoughts on that and here they are:
1. Make Understanding the Goal
Just to be clear, understanding is not the same as agreeing. Often, when someone is speaking, we allow our own values and judgments to intervene prematurely and evaluate. Because of this (and just as often) we fail to understand what is really being said. Making understanding the goal means getting past our own biases and making space for someone else’s perspective.
2. Be Quiet
This seems simple enough. But is requires some practice. It’s hard to take in what someone is saying if we have crowded our heads with inner chatter; are waiting for our turn to speak; or thinking about what we are going to have for dinner. Taking a little time to achieve some sense of quiet and focus on the person talking will help to achieve the understanding we need to engage in a meaningful exchange of information or opinion.
3. Use the Inquiring Mind
Let’s face it. Even with the best of intentions, we aren’t always going to get to the intended meaning of every conversation easily. And, when we don’t, it is tempting to pretend we do if only to advance the conversation and move onto something else. But of course doing that takes us further away from the goal. So it’s not something we would want to make a habit of. Asking questions for clarity however, is a great habit to get into. It lets people know we are listening and it keeps the conversation on the right track too.
Paraphrasing is another good habit to develop when listening to someone speak. This, by the way, is not about repeating word for word what we hear. Instead, paraphrasing asks us to summarize in our own words what we have heard, without judgment. If we are able to repeat what we understand the speaker to have said and the speaker confirms it as being what he meant, we have listened successfully.
That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?
Note: this is a refreshed version of a post originally written in 2010