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How to Become a Better Listener

Listening is key to all effective communication. Messages that we send can be easily misunderstood if the listener is not truly listening, leading to a breakdown in overall communication. An awful lot of people tend to be bad listeners, and, sadly, they appear to be getting worse at it. And because being a good listener is an absolutely key skill, deterioration in listening ability will almost inevitably lead to increasing difficulties with the key aspects of life: family, relationships, and career.

Classic evidence of poor listening skills comes from the childhood game “Telephone,” where a message is whispered from one participant in the line to the next, the message invariably getting badly garbled by the time it reaches the last person. More scientifically, in the book The Plateau Effect,* the authors summarize extensive research findings thus: “The truth is, the older people get, the more their listening comprehension sinks. Making matters worse…people wildly overestimate how good they are at listening.”

The Great Recession of 2008 began what Mother Jones magazine has characterized as “The Great Speedup.” Companies eliminated millions of jobs, but work requirements didn’t abate in the least, resulting in significantly more work piled on to those lucky enough to keep their jobs. Furthermore, technological advances in the last 15 years or so (pagers, Blackberries and smartphones) have destroyed any semblance of work/life balance for the majority of white collar professionals, making it increasingly difficult to be attentive to listening to conversations that are not work related. Surprisingly, merely carrying a cell phone leads to poorer listening than is the case when people are cell phone free. And people who frequently receive texts are even more susceptible to listening inattention.

There are several overall strategies you can employ to improve your listening skills. First, listen with intent. This simply means focusing on the speaker and putting extraneous thoughts aside. I say "simply," but it's not so simple. Next time you're in an extended conversation with someone try to notice when your mind is wandering. It's probably more frequent than you'd guess.

Second, listen with a “you’re right” stance. If you’re honest with yourself, I suspect you’ll have to admit that in any kind of conversation in which there is an element of disagreement you are focused on marshaling your arguments and looking for “holes” in the other person’s logic. If instead you set aside your adversarial stance and focus on what you agree with or with what might have some merit you’ll find you’re hearing the other person a lot, lot better. If you can't find anything with which to agree, at least be empathetic and try to understand. This is particularly valuable in communicating within your close relationships, but is also vitally important in business. Remember, “The customer is always right,” is an excellent listening starting place, even if the “customer” is a co-worker.

Third, be patient. This can be particularly challenging with people who ramble, pause frequently, or perhaps speak slowly. Nonetheless, if you really want to understand someone don't interrupt or finish their sentences for them!

Fourth, pay attention to body, and particularly facial, "language".  Are there inconsistencies between the words being spoken and posture or facial expression? Most people are pretty good at verbally dissembling through not so adept at it physically. The eyes are particularly expressive, so watch especially for eye movements.

Fifth, let the speaker know that you're listening. Maintain eye contact, nod occasionally, and above all avoid checking your text messages!

Finally, focus on the main idea the speaker is trying to express, and pay relatively less attention to word choices that may be fuzzy or inappropriate. If you need to, ask clarifying questions (this is another way to let the speaker know you're paying attention to what's being said).

* The Plateau Effect - Getting from Stuck to Success by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson.

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