Listening Skills

If listening is so important, why is it so rare?

A number of years ago I was conducting a seminar for around 80 or 90 people and in the middle of my talk, I decided to ask them a simple question: “How many of you can think of someone in your professional lives, past or present, who you would characterize as being an excellent listener?”  I was surprised to see that less than half the room put up their hands.  I’ve repeated this question for every group I have worked with since and the results are similar: half the room squinch up their faces and stare at the ceiling as they try to think of someone with excellent listening skills; the other half immediately stick their hands in the air.  When I probe a little deeper and ask the people who put their hands in the air if they respected the people they have in mind, if these people were mentors to them, or helped their careers along, the answer is always an emphatic ‘yes’.

So, then I ask them how they know the person is listening.  The answers tend to be along the lines of: they make eye contact, they give visual or verbal feedback (nodding head, ‘okay, yeah’), they ask questions when they don’t understand, they’re not looking at their phone, they don’t interrupt and they are able to offer insight that shows they understood what you were saying.  Well, that doesn’t sound too hard, does it?!  Don’t look at your phone, nod, make eye contact and paraphrase back to the speaker what you heard.  And if you attend an Active Listening Skills course, this is exactly what they will teach you to do.  I’ve always been somewhat hesitant around teaching listening skills, as it has long been my belief that there is nothing quite so annoying as someone who has recently attended an Active Listening Skills course.  They will maintain open body language, nod sympathetically, then lean in while maintaining eye contact and say, “So, if I’m hearing you correctly, you feel that…”  You can do everything right and still be a crappy listener. 

My next question then, is “Why is listening so hard?  What are the barriers to being a good listener?”  And here’s where things get interesting.  This list includes things like: I’m already forming my response in my head while they are talking; I am thinking about something else; I have other stresses and time constraints; the person is boring and I don’t really care about what they’re talking about; listening is hard, it takes energy!  What becomes clear in these responses is that the main barrier to listening is myself.  Put another way, the voice in my head prevents me from being fully present which prevents me from truly listening.

The key to being a good listener is being fully present.  As such, there is much overlap between the skills involved in listening and the skills involved in developing executive presence (see my article on Executive Presence).  Speaking and listening are two sides of the same coin when it comes to being wholly present, so many of my suggestions for being a good listener are similar to those for having presence, because they are about managing the voice in our heads.  In order to be a good listener, we need to quell that voice while the other person is speaking.  At the same time, we need to be able to think in silence in order to process what the person is telling us.  Here are a few suggestions that will help:

  • Keep notes
  • Make eye contact
  • Pause
  • Ask questions

Keep notes

Many of my clients take copious notes during meetings, calls and conversations.  But I’ve noticed something about note-keepers: they rarely check their notes after the fact. The reason that they take notes is that it helps them focus while they listen and, as a result, retain more.  Although, apparently, the memory benefit of note-taking applies to handwritten notes, but not typed notes.  The process of writing notes while we listen forces us to synthesize what we are hearing and translate it into our own words.  Note-taking works best if you are able to create separation between listening and writing, as opposed to always writing while someone is speaking: this will allow you to think about what you are writing as opposed to capturing verbatim what the person is saying.

Make eye contact

We generally know that eye contact is a good thing, particularly while listening, but I’m not sure most people fully appreciate why this is the case.  As it relates to listening, eye contact is important for two reasons: first, it establishes a genuine connection with the other human being; second, it quietens the voice in our heads.  Both of these are important for listening.  There really is no faking the connection that is established with real eye contact.  Not only will you be more attuned to the nuances of what the person is communicating, they will also feel more heard.  Good listening isn’t just about accurately capturing what is being said, it is about making the speaker feel that the full complexity of what they are trying to communicate has been received.  Eye contact helps do this.  The second piece of eye contact is that it helps shut out the voice in our heads.  It is very difficult to have a second, parallel soundtrack going in our heads while maintaining eye contact.  The voice in our heads is the main barrier to good listening.  Often, we are just waiting for the other person to finish speaking so that we can speak the thought we have been formulating while they were talking.  This is an extremely frustrating pattern of behaviour for the speaker.  Maintaining eye contact will lessen the likelihood of doing this.

Pause

I talk a lot about the importance of pausing while speaking.  It is just as important while listening.  You may have noticed that the previous two points – take notes and make eye contact – are very hard to do at the same time.  Give yourself a moment to jot down your notes in silence, or even to think.  Pausing allows us to contemplate in silence, which allows us to be more present both when speaking and when listening.  Becoming comfortable with pauses is one of the most important things you can do to improve your presence.

Ask questions

There is an art to asking questions.  People love being asked questions, but few of us do it well.  Asking questions is something I am not naturally skilled at and have had to work very hard at over the years.  My instinct is often to listen to what someone says, and then relay a thought or experience that I have had that connects to what they were saying.  In my mind, I am trying to create a bridge to what the person is saying by sharing a similar experience of my own, but this can often be interpreted as always bringing it back to myself.  This is not an uncommon trait.  Often, a question will be more effective – it signals that you are interested in them rather than yourself, and achieves the same goal as the relayed thought would have. 

Another reason for not asking questions is that people often pretend to understand things they don’t.  They will nod their heads during a conversation despite not being entirely sure what the other person means.  If someone uses an unfamiliar acronym on a call, very few people will interject to ask the meaning of the acronym.  Or, here’s a scenario I have observed that occurs with shocking regularity: a leader walks into a team meeting, talks for awhile, gives some directives, everyone at the table nods agreement and the leader then leaves; as soon as he or she leaves the room, the team members turn to each other and ask, “So what are we supposed to do?”  Why did no one ask questions, despite not truly understanding?  Learn to ask questions, even dumb ones (yes, there are dumb questions).  You may even want to prepare a few questions prior to a conversation or a meeting.  When we ask questions, we not only benefit ourselves, but often the speaker as well.

Conclusion

The thing about listening is that, above all else, it is a choice.  Being a good listener requires being fully present and is the opposite side of the coin as speaking with presence.  The difference with speaking, however, is that when speaking you have to be at least somewhat present.  You may be tracking ahead in your mind, or get lost in your thoughts, or give in to the inner critical voice, but you at least have to be present enough to form and articulate a coherent stream of words.  With listening, it is possible to just check out, to pretend to listen, but be completely elsewhere.  So, yes, the skills we have discussed, taking notes, making eye contact, pausing and asking questions, will all help you be a better listener.  But first and foremost, you need to make the choice to be present while others are speaking.  You will be a better leader for it, and as I mentioned at the beginning, people will respect you for it.