How to Become a More Effective Listener

For most people, being listened to equals respect. True across cultures. True over time. True in your personal life as well as your professional one. And it is a best practice of people who want to be successful, regardless of who they are, what they do, or how old they are.

Listening Versus Hearing. Hearing is an act of the brain registering a sound. Listening gives the sound meaning and considers an appropriate response.

At one of our recent leadership workshops we asked participants to come up with as many reasons for not listening effectively as they could, in five minutes. There were the usual suspects:

a. The speaker was not interesting;

b. There were distractions;

c. The person had no time to listen;

d. The person already know what they are going to say; and

e. Other similar answers.

Then we asked participants to identify from the reasons above, those over which they exercised partial or total control. All the reasons previously identified were named except background noise levels being much higher than the speaker’s voice. Which leads us to a key takeaway: listening is strictly voluntary.

Take Control With Active Listening. Active listening requires intentionality on the part of the listener. It enables the listener to extract critical content from what is being said. In order to extract critical content, listeners should:

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a. Focus on the key words and phrases being spoken.

b. Separate the main points from the supporting points.

a. Main points are those which someone states as reasons, objectives, outcomes, causes, or key concepts.

b. Supporting points are additional information which explains, justifies, supports, or provides background information for the main point.

c. Correctly interpret the emotions behind the words.

d. Probe for more information.

e. Listen for what was not said.

f. Take good notes, recording important details and emotions.

g. Confirm your own understanding of what was said by summarizing what you heard in your own words.

People Can Easily Spot the Poseur. People can tell whether or not you are fake listening. Your mechanical “uh, huh” (with and accompanying head nod and your eyes are focused on something else) might as well tell the person speaking to you that you think he or she is dull, boring, and not worth listening to. Don’t be surprised then, if you don’t get respected, hired, promoted, included, or purchased from, when he or she decides to go in a different direction. A direction that most certainly includes true listeners.

More Tips for Effective Listening. Any activity that requires concentration also requires effort. Here are effective ways to extend that effort:

a. Carefully observe the speaker’s body language. It speaks volumes! What to look for:

i. Facial expressions, especially someone’s immediate visceral reaction.

ii. Gestures with hands and head nods.

iii. Posture.

b. Practice your own effective body language.

c. Rephrase the main point(s) back to him or her to confirm your understanding, “So, what I understand you to be saying is XXX…do I understand correctly?”

d. Ask questions to ensure you understand what he or she has said.

e. Listen for all the evidence, facts, and rationale BEFORE forming your opinion. Suspend judgment until after the other person has finished his or her thoughts and you’ve gotten answers to questions that helped you better understand what they were saying.

f. Resist all distractions – the only focus you have is the other person. Stop already with your smartphone, multitasking, and other annoying habits that shout, “I’m not listening!”

g. Avoid tuning the speaker out, even if you aren’t interested or don’t like him or her.

h. Pride yourself on being open to new ideas and information.

i. Remember that no one ever learned anything while he or she was doing the talking.

j. Watch your own talk-meter, and limit yourself to no more than 49% of the talking.

k. An interested listener can filter out background noise up to 65 decibels, which is the level of a neighboring conversation just eight feet away.

l. Use both verbal and non-verbal signals that you are listening:

i. Verbal signals such as: “yes…” “hmm, I see” and “OK”

ii. Non-verbal signals such as eye contact comfortable for the speaker, nodding in agreement, or gestures indicating the speaker should continue.

Finally, periodically Google “becoming a more effective listener” to remind yourself of the current and emerging listening best practices.

This article is excerpted from the Boyer Management Group’s Leading Through People Effective Communication Skills Workshop.

Boyer Management Group works with employers, organizations, and job seekers alike to help them become more successful. For employers, we offer world-class talent development, leadership and management training, acquisition and onboarding tools and programs to help employees and volunteers achieve consistent, optimal performance. For job seekers and universities, we offer tools, assessments, books, and curricula to help connect people with careers. To find out more, please visit us at info@boyermanagement.com, or call us at 215-942-0982.

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