“I like to listen. I have learnt a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway
Whenever I am in the middle of a discussion, I try not to talk too much and always listen to the person conversing with me. But sometimes all of those words wind up transforming into a garbled mess. At that point, I realize I’m actually impatiently waiting for the other person to stop talking. That way I can start talking again, feeling that I’ve got all eyes on me. Not a good practice, but it happens to the best of us.
In recent studies by Dr. Ralph Nichols, he mentions that almost 40% of the day is spent on listening to others. What amazes me is that the efficiency of listening to what we hear is only at somewhere around 25% — and I’m not talking about the physical comprehension. Is your boss giving you some tasks and you find yourself in the uncomfortable position of asking again what the exact steps were? Do you sometimes find it hard to listen to people that you really don’t care for all that much?
As with many other skill sets, in order to become efficient and effective at listening you need to train yourself to do so. Here are 12 tips that will put you on the road to better listening.
1. Find common subjects and try to stick to them as much as possible.
If you take a positive stance towards a specific subject, you will find that in most cases there is enough information to enrich your knowledge. No matter how sterile the conversation may be, you can still get some valuable information from it. Try to exclude personal elements in these subjects, as this is counterproductive to efficient listening. For example, if you love basketball and the person you are engaged in conversation with is passionately talking about soccer, you will likely find yourself wanting to end the conversation (or leave the room altogether). Try to exclude your personal preferences and be as positive as you can when someone is talking about something that you can tell they are interested in. Look at your conversation as a way to educate yourself — even if it is something you don’t necessarily like. Who knows…you may even change your mind about your feelings on the subject matter by the time the conversation is through.
2. Take the initiative.
What’s the person speaking to you saying? Look at him and focus on his words. Don’t be afraid to make eye contact. Put your effort into making the discussion a “two-way street.” If looking directly into the speaker’s eyes (or even the speaker’s personality) are distracting you, try to focus just on the message he’s pointing out. Make him feel that he is being listened to. Show your attention and use words and expressions like:
- “I see.”
- ”Hmmm, interesting…”
- “Sounds great!”
Make sure to be as honest as you can when responding to the person you’re conversing with; a lack of authenticity can often be sensed if you’re not being forthright.
3. Exercise your ears.
Prior to having a conversation, try to rehearse it in your mind. If the person you’re going to be conversing with is someone you know, try to remember what he likes to talk about and get in the right mood to listen. Remember, once you show people that you can listen them, they will listen in return. Efficient and effective listening requires a lot of energy, and practicing facilitates the success.
4. Focus your attention on the main ideas.
Follow the general points that the person is trying to express. In some cases, you will see that people have a way of building their ideas with specific models, such as:
- Starting with a little introduction speech
- Listing out reasons and motives
- Examples and illustrations (which end with a conclusion and a call to action).
Try to identify the main ideas from the rest and focus on that. Don’t pay too much attention on details as that can get you away from the discussion topic — and they are more difficult to remember.
5. Take notes.
Do not be afraid to do this. Doing this will show the speaker that you have a real interest in his subject. If you feel that the discussion is really adding value to what you know, then keep with you a small notepad and a pen. It’s best not to write during key moments of the conversation. Instead, take short and punchy notes. Later on, you can read them and analyze the information. With some practice, you will be able to get rid of the writing tools and be able to better use your mind to take mental notes instead.
6. Don’t pay attention to outside elements.
Try to “close” your senses to the outside world — even for a minute or two. Show the speaking person that you really care about his words. If you’re uncomfortable standing, choose a more intimate spot for the two to you to sit down and discuss things. You will still be aware of the outside noise, but you will not pay attention. This is a wonderful technique that you can use not only for listening, but also when you are trying to learn something or simply want to meditate.
7. Avoid contradiction while the speaker is speaking, but be genuine.
This is perhaps the biggest obstacle in becoming a better listener. Don’t be affected by any words with an emotional charge. Teach yourself to recognize those words and expressions and think about why those particular words are affecting you. Then try to shift your point of view to align with the person speaking. Think more about his reason of using these words and be as open-minded as you can. Don’t let past frustrations within break out during the conversation. Once the speaker is done with his point of view, then take the time to speak your mind in a genuine and calm manner. Everybody appreciates sincere speakers, but more so if they are conscientious in their tone when they speak.
A quick and premature disagreement with the other person’s words can lead to a “blind spot” inside your interaction. Having an open mind will allow you to follow the real essence of the communication and not just some particular aspects that may cause friction. Avoid a critical stand and don’t write off the other person’s words as incorrect. However, if you strongly disagree with what he’s saying, don’t use aggressive words to make your point known. Start your arguments with phrases like:
- “I understand what you’re saying, but I think that …”
- “In my humble opinion…”
- “Don’t you think that …”
Evaluate the communication message, not the person or the way he used to express it. We are not are not all the same. Listen and analyze before judging. Receiving the actual message is far more important than the person’s delivery of the message. Be aware of the mood, personality or tone of your conversation, but don’t let these things interfere with the reception of the message, as that is the most important part. Understand that there are many people who can’t properly express their feelings and can’t find the right channel for their message.
8. Be present.
I’ve mentioned the word “focus” several times so far. You should know that you need to focus also on the present, not in the past or future. Being “less than present” can open up unwanted discussion. Keep in mind your speaker’s words and try to place them in the present. Anything less can render the conversation meaningless for both yourself and the person you’re speaking with.
9. Analyze non-verbal communication.
Look for facial expressions and the way your partner is using body language. Joe Navarro’s research in body language has shown that almost 60% of communication is non-verbal. So, you need to “read between the lines” every time there’s an emotional approach to a topic. That way you’ll know what subjects to avoid and when to dig even deeper into a conversation.
Repeat all the above tips whenever you are engaged in conversation. If you feel you’ve acquired some skills, try to approach new people and even people that seem difficult to speak with. This regular practice can do wonders for you. Becoming an efficient and effective listener isn’t easy, but once you start to make progress you’ll find that you get access to new information in one of the easiest way possible: by lending an ear.
(Image courtesy of Melvin Gaal under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 generic license.)
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