Odds are you’ve had someone say, “you’re not listening to me!” You may protest that you were listening, of course you were! But were you actively listening? That’s more challenging. Yet this intentional listening technique can have a positive impact on your professional and personal relationships. Read on to learn some strategies that will help you be a better active listener.
What type of listener are you?
There are three levels of listening that we can engage in during interactions with others. First, there’s internal listening. This is what most of us do. When we’re listening to someone else, what we’re really focused on is formulating our response. This gets in the way of our information gathering and understanding of what the speaker intends to convey.
A step up from this is focused listening. In this case, the listener pays attention and makes an effort to block out distractions. You are aware of your inner voice, but working to focus instead on the speaker. You might think of the listening you do in a meeting with your boss. You listen intently because you want to do the right thing. Still, you’re not quite at active listening.
The third level of listening is active listening, sometimes also called global listening. This is when you are truly listening to understand. This is intentional listening at its best. You are noticing non-verbal cues (e.g. tone, emotions, body language, and reluctance to share information). You are reflecting on what the other person means to say, as well as what they actually say.
Strategies to be a better active listener
Active listening may not be our natural inclination, but it can be learned. Since it offers so many personal and professional advantages, it’s worth putting in the effort. Try using these strategies to improve your active listening:
There are many ways to do this. Put your devices down. Silence notifications on your computer. Turn to face the speaker. Maintain eye contact and resist the impulse to scan the room or fiddle with paper clips or a coffee mug. The goal is to signal to the person speaking that you are ready to give them your full attention.
When you are anticipating what the other person is going to say or preparing your response in your head, you aren’t being patient. Active listening requires you to focus your attention on the other individual’s words, body language and other non-verbal cues. The person speaking may not speak as concisely or directly as you would like, but barking “get to the point” at them is not going to help them feel heard.
To be a better active listener you’ll need to learn to let your preconceived notions go. You may think you know what the other person is going to say, but that doesn’t mean that you do. Keep an open mind and be willing to listen and adjust.
Invest your time and attention in this particular conversation while trying to avoid being judgmental. Even if you disagree, wait for the speaker to finish talking or come to an appropriate break to share your perspective. Actively try to at least understand the other person’s point of view.
Summarize and Paraphrase
There are some key differences between summarizing and paraphrasing to consider: “Paraphrasing involves rephrasing the speakers’ words – this could be along the lines of ‘In other words, what you are saying is…’ or ‘you are frustrated/struggling/happy with XXX because…’, whereas summarizing requires the listener to either repeat an overview of the conversation, or to reiterate the main points back to the speaker, allowing them to respond and clarify if required.”
Nevertheless, both can be useful in confirming that you have heard what the speaker has communicated and helping them feel their words are valued.
Be Aware of Non-Verbal Feedback
If you’re rolling your eyes or tapping a pen impatiently on the table, the speaker isn’t going to feel you are listening effectively. Just as active listeners are alert to the speaker’s non-verbal cues, pay attention to what your own body language, tone, or emotion might be saying to the speaker as you listen.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Questions can help you to clarify what the speaker is saying. They can also signal your willingness to hear what the other person is trying to communicate. However, you’ll want to avoid using yes/no questions. Also, steer clear of leading questions, or ones that steer the conversation away from the original topic.
Try to ask open-ended questions that encourage elaboration, such as:
- Can you tell me more about….?
- What are your thoughts about….?
- How did it feel when….?
- What is it like to….?
- What do you like about…..?
Keep a Listening Log
Julia Lindsay, CEO of iOpener Institute for People and Performance, suggests logging four to eight hours of listening, “noting who you listen to, who you don’t listen to, and why.” Try to evaluate what level of listening you are doing and with whom. Regular review and analysis can make you more self-aware and improve your active listening.
Active listening in the workplace can benefit every relationship in your organization. These strategies can help you be a better active listener. To complete this series, we’ll discuss next how to specifically apply active listening in customer interactions to drive engagement and improve satisfaction.