by LEA MCLEOD, M.A.
Imagine you’re having a conversation with your boss, making your case for a raise. Or maybe you’re speaking with a major client, proposing a new program implementation.
Now imagine that during the conversation, the person you’re speaking to is checking email, flipping through a notebook, or texting away on his or her cell phone. Or, what if he or she keeps interrupting or disagreeing before you’re able to make your complete point?
It’s incredibly frustrating, but unfortunately, it happens all the time. It’s no secret that listening has become harder than ever in today’s workplace. We have so many gadgets, devices, and notifications that scream for our attention every minute of the day—and we often trick ourselves into believing they’re more important than a conversation unfolding right in front of us.
We have a biological challenge, too: We can listen about three times faster than anyone can talk. That means we have excess capacity in our brain that will wander off and entertain itself unless we take steps to intentionally manage it.
Once you learn how to do that, however, you’ll seriously boost your worth in the office. In his classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie cites that being a good listener is one of the most potent things you can do to increase your influence and likeability. Plus, listening is one of the top skills employers seek in potential and current employees, and it’s correlated with perceived ability to lead (read: a better chance at promotions).
So, in your next meeting, it’s worth paying attention to how you approach conversations with others. Find yourself getting distracted? Here are four tips that can help you overcome that temptation, hone your listening skills, and show people that you truly care.
1. Get Mentally and Physically Present
Most obviously—and yet, perhaps most importantly—make the decision to be an intentional listener for every conversation. Push other activities, deadlines, and to-do lists from your mind, and be present in the current discussion.
To show that you’re truly engaged, put down your cell phone, stop texting, and close your notebook. If you’re sitting behind a desk, where it might be tempting to multi-task, shut your laptop and move papers to the side. This tells the other person that you’re ready for the conversation.
2. Practice Your Neutral Listening Pose
I was once taught to listen without making any facial expression, including nodding or smiling. I’m not talking about a blank, eyes-glazed-over look; I’m talking about a neutral facial expression that simply says, “I’m listening.”
Often, when you’re listening to someone, there’s a natural tendency to physically react to what he or she is saying, instead of simply letting it sink in. Perhaps you make a face, furrow your brows, or smile here and there. While you may think it demonstrates your interest in the conversation, all of these activities actually disrupt your ability to listen and the other person’s ability to be heard.
Instead, listen in a neutral pose that shows you’re engaged, but not presumptuous. Use open body language (i.e., don’t cross your arms), avoid extreme facial expressions (regardless of whether they’re favorable or disapproving), and nix the foot tapping and other fidgety habits that signal impatience.
I’ve found that by assuming a neutral body pose, I’m mentally preparing to listen. It helps me suspend judgment, focus on the listener, and stay away from multi-tasking temptations.
3. Offer Uninterrupted Speaking Time
Interruptions come in many forms. You may interject comments to agree or encourage the speaker, verbally challenge him or her to express disagreement, or try to show empathy by tossing in an occasional, “Oh, I know exactly how you feel.”
Well-intended or not, interruption makes effective communication impossible. Two people can’t possibly speak over each other and both be heard.
Instead, I suggest using a technique that mediators use when they facilitate conflict: Give the other person uninterrupted speaking time.
It sounds simple, but here’s the catch: Your goal during this time is to listen with the intent of repeating back what’s said. When that is your objective, you’ll listen with a different intent (actually understanding what’s being said), instead of trying to interject your own thoughts.
4. Repeat Back and Ask Validating Questions
Once you’ve listened and absorbed, you can use validating questions to make sure you heard the speaker correctly.
Start by succinctly repeating back what you heard:
- So what you’re saying is _ _ ___. Is that right?
- Let me summarize what I heard you say: _ _ ___. Did I miss or misinterpret anything?
Then, ask clarifying questions about anything you didn’t 100% understand :
- When you say revenue, what specific revenue are you referring to?
- Can you repeat that? I want to make sure I heard you correctly.
- Will you tell me more about your fundraising plan for this project?
With these questions answered, you’ll not only have a crystal clear understanding of the conversation, but you’ll also demonstrate to the speaker that you’re truly invested in what he or she has to say.
Improved listening skills will set you apart as a colleague and leader, as others start noticing that you take them seriously in your conversations. Start taking these steps to up your listening game, and you’ll up your career game, too.