Golden Rules for Great Listening

Listening is a huge part of our daily life, both at work and at home. How good a listener are you–really? Because we rarely if ever give it any special attention, we might not be as good at listening as we would like to think we are! Here are some pointers that can help you be a better listener. Scan the list and choose 2-3 items you could focus on improving today.

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_____Be present. Listening well requires your full attention.  You truly can’t listen well while checking email, reading a report, or texting. If it is important to listen, then stop what you are doing and listen fully.  Good listening doesn’t allow for multitasking

_____Pay attention to what you are hearing. What is the person speaking really saying? Why? What words are they using? How sure are they about what they are saying? Is this something you expected to hear? Are they being factual or emotional?

_____Listen between and beyond the words. What is the tone of voice of the speaker? What is the expression on their face? What does their body language tell you? Look for congruency between what they are saying and how they are expressing it non-verbally. For example, if the person says everything is fine, but their body language is closed and their face looks sad, there may well be more to the story, or else something else is going on.

_____Don’t prepare your reply while listening. It is oh-so-tempting to prepare your argument or next comments while you are listening, but this negates your ability to stay focused on listening. If you catch yourself thinking about what you want to say, try to stop and return to listening.

_____Be sure you can hear. Have you ever sat in a crowded restaurant or coffee shop and found it nearly impossible to hear your companion? If you can’t hear, how well can you listen? If the conversation is important, find a quiet space without interruptions or noise.

_____Maximize phone conversations. If the conversation happens by phone, be sure you have a good connection. It is difficult to listen well when phone coverage is cutting in and out during a conversation. Can you pull over so you can listen fully? I recommend it highly! I also recommend having a closed door when you are having a conference call meeting so you won’t be distracted by other people popping in to ask you a question, or other activities going on around you.

_____Find a private place. Having a performance conversation or even a development conversation where someone else can hear it is the kiss of death for the listener. These conversations need to be help in private. If you don’t have an office you can go to, could you use the cafeteria at a very quiet time of day? Or a local coffee shop? I know of some cases in which workers that needed to find a quiet place for a phone conversation ended up sitting in their cars for privacy and focus.

_____Be OK with criticism. To avoid defensiveness, even if you are hearing criticism, listen for the kernels of truth in the comments. Ask yourself if the person has your best interest at heart. If yes, listen with an open mind. Remind yourself that feedback is a gift. We don’t like every gift we receive, but we should try to accept it gracefully. We can decide later what to do with it.

_____Don’t let your reaction derail you. Usually it’s OK to postpone your reaction and ask for the discussion to be tabled until you can sort things out. Sometimes we get pressured to have an immediate answer, but unless it is an emergency situation, you do have the right to ask for a continuation. That said, if your boss or client wants an answer now, you could provide a preliminary answer while reserving the right to adjust it once you have all the information or time to think it through.

_____Paraphrase, don’t parrot. Once in a while it helps to mirror back what you are hearing. It can help the speaker by hearing his or her words reflected back. Instead of repeating back word for word what was just said, try putting it in your own words, or summarizing. Just don’t exaggerate or minimize the impact of what the other person is saying, rather, try to reflect accurately the tone and emotion behind their words.

_____Listen without judging. Once you have made up your mind about what the person is telling you, it is easy to stop listening. Instead, consciously suspend judgment so you can continue to listen. Once you start telling the other person what you think of what they said, you are no longer in listening mode, but in telling mode.

_____Don’t interrupt or talk over the other person. This is rude and can be distracting to someone who may be struggling to share something with you. We think faster than we speak, so use this time to think about what they are saying, not what you want to say.

_____Encourage the speaker. Eye contact, full attention, nodding and words like “go on” and “tell me more” go a long way to keeping you in listening mode and the speaker in speaking mode. If you need to ask a question, be sure it stays “on track” and is meant simply to clarify or to encourage. Open ended questions are usually best if you want to keep the other person talking.

It is said that listening takes up the greatest part of our communication time during our work day. Make the most of your listening time by being a more skillful, mindful  listener. It will pay off in clearer communication and better relationships.

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