Everybody thinks they’re a great listener. But there’s actually a lot more to listening than just giving somebody the time and space to talk.
Listening has actually been described by some as an “art”, and I can see why.
Mastering listening requires you to be not only patient, but also open-minded and non-judgmental. And the rewards can be fantastic. Because the goal of listening is essentially to discover what the speaker thinks and feels about something. And once you’ve achieved this accurately, you can leverage their perspective to be creative.
The importance of empathic listening is something that really stood out for me while I was reading Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s the cornerstone of his fifth habit: seeking to understand before being understood.
In this chapter, Covey writes about how people tend to be eager to give advice without fully understanding a situation. And rushing to offer a solution without understanding the problem is a dangerous error that I’ve come across many times during my time in business.
So I wanted to share some tips about how we can all become better at listening and waste less time and energy correcting misunderstandings.
1. Listen with an open mind.
The first step towards effective empathic listening is to let go of your own frame of reference.
If you think you know where the person is going, there’s a temptation to cut them off by offering a solution or sharing an experience of your own. You might also start probing them with questions that come from your own perception of the situation. But by rushing ahead here just derails the conversation and prevents the person from expressing what they were intending to.
To listen effectively, you should try to listen without really thinking at all. Otherwise, you are going to start formulating responses in your mind and simply waiting for an opportunity to give them. This distracts you from actually taking on board what the person is saying to you.
2. Resist evaluating what the person is saying.
You don’t need to decide whether or not you agree or disagree with the things that somebody is saying to you. Just forget about your own opinions for a moment and let them express theirs.
The minute somebody thinks you are going to shut down what they are saying because you hold a contrasting opinion, they are simply going to close up. When this happens, you’ve blown your opportunity to understand the person’s position.
Acknowledge their views and opinions, even if you don’t agree with them. And of course, you can disagree with them, but you should let them express themselves first.
3. Give them your undivided attention.
It’s actually harder than you think to focus your attention on somebody for long enough to absorb all of the information that they’re giving. In most environments there will be multiple distractions competing for your attention, whether it be computer screens, your phone or just other people in the vicinity.
But ridding yourself of these distractions so that you can focus completely on listening is important. Giving somebody your full focus displays respect, and a person is more likely to stay calm and open up when they feel respected.
Holding eye contact and using affirmative gestures like nodding help to make it clear to someone that you’re actually listening.
4. Pay attention to non-verbal communication.
You’ve probably heard before that 93% of communication is non-verbal (– I always have to look that number up).
While somebody is speaking, you should take note of what their body is saying. Do they display signs of discomfort? Do they seem afraid or wary of you? And perhaps most importantly, does their body language align with their words?
Non-verbal communication gives you a deeper insight into how somebody is feeling about a certain topic. The more that you focus on this, the better you become at picking up signals. That allows you to coax more out of people, steer them away from telling white lies or just make them feel more supported.
5. Restate and paraphrase.
A great way to demonstrate effective listening is to repeat what somebody is saying back to them. You shouldn’t do this word-for-word, but should paraphrase what they’ve said to show that you actually understand it and can put it into your own words.
Not only does this show the other person that you’re paying attention to them, but it also helps you to retain the information. By repeating it yourself, you’re more likely to remember what was said, and this allows you to follow the narrative more easily. You are less likely to muddle the facts later in the conversation or miss important details.
These are just a few of many examples of how we can all become better listeners. I highly recommend that you read Covey’s book, as it helps you to understand why listening is so important to our personal growth. I shared a summary of the book on my Medium page to give you an idea of what it’s all about.
If you have any other listening tips that I didn’t cover here, please let me know in the comments!