When I was in journalism school about two decades ago, I received training in many important skills that I still use today. But I can’t recall a single class that focused on listening. Why?
Because it probably wasn’t there.
Listening is the most neglected communication skill of all. Even the most talkative types spend most of their lives listening. Yet, very few of us receive training to become better listeners, which means we have to figure it out ourselves.
Becoming a better listener requires hard work and commitment, but it’s well worth the investment. Good listening helps you acquire new knowledge, clear out confusion and misunderstanding in your relationships, spark breakthrough ideas and capture invaluable input for decision-making.
To support you on your listening journey, here are a few principles that I rely on to maintain and build my listening skills and mindset in each interaction.
1. It’s not about you.
Listening is not about the beautifully formulated questions that you ask or the brilliant solution you’ve come up with; it’s about the person on the other side of the table. Each conversation is an opportunity to learn something new. To listen effectively, you have to embrace a mindset of discovery and be genuinely curious in what the other person has to say - regardless of your own opinion.
2. Preparation can be your best friend – and your worst enemy.
Preparation is crucial, but don’t take it too far. If you bring a detailed checklist or a list of carefully formulated questions into a meeting, your preparation can easily become a distraction. You’ll be thinking about the next question on your list, while you should be 100% focused on the other person.
The most important thing to do in your preparation is to ask yourself what you want to get from the meeting and why it matters. If you have clarity on your goals, you’ll find the appropriate words when needed to keep the conversation moving in the right direction.
3. There’s more than words.
Don’t assume that you understand what the other person is saying. Even if we share the same language, our words don’t necessarily mean the same. If we talk about a black dog, chances are that we both have different pictures in our head.
Always check to make sure you’re on the same page. An effective way to do that is through mirroring: repeat the last few of the other person’s words and then go silent. Your conversational partner will most likely rephrase or provide more information, giving you a better understanding of what’s on his or her mind.
4. Good listening is not competitive.
Listening is not about who’s the smartest person in the room. Competition is at odds with the trust and safety you need for a real conversation to begin. Here’s a quote from leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, who analyzed the behavior of 3,492 participants in a program to help managers become better coaches:
“Poor listeners were seen as competitive — as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. That might make you an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make you a good listener. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.”
5. It’s ok not to listen.
Listening is not something you do on the side while skimming the front page of the newspaper or checking your phone. Listening requires full commitment and deep focus. Also, beware of internal distractions. You need to be locked in. If you are in a rush or otherwise stressed, it’s better to suggest another time to listen.
For further reading on this fascinating topic: Katie Holmes pointed me to this article with many more tips and stories about how to be a better listener.