Have you ever been in a conversation, only to realize that the other person was not actually listening to you? We all have. And we’ve all been that asshole on the other side.
The reason we’re not listening is that we’re waiting for our turn to talk. We’re waiting to put in our 2 cents. We’re acting like a conversation is a competitive sport. We’re trying to think of what we’re going to say next, or we’re just not interested.
But the problem with being obsessed with talking is that we usually don’t hear anything anyone is saying. And we miss out on the insights, information and stories that everyone else has collected throughout their journey, collected to share with us in the spirit of connection and community.
Frankly, I think that sucks.
It sucks, and it shows a distinct lack of empathy or appreciation for the joy that interacting with other human beings — glorious, wonderful human beings — represents.
So, how can we be better listeners?
Don’t interrupt. As soon as someone takes a pause mid-sentence, it’s tempting to continue talking to fill the silence. And that’s a bad thing. It distracts from the value of what they were saying. It demonstrates to them that the point they were making, or the story they were telling, doesn’t have any importance to you. It’s not about keeping your mouth shut — it’s about letting people follow their thoughts and their threads to the natural endpoint.
Give your listening skills a test. Work on them.
Go out and practice with a friend. Play an audio recording. Pretend it’s the other person. Listen to it. Give it a rating out of 10. See if you can condense and repeat the point of it. Do it with a podcast or an audiobook, and use it as a chance to train your conversational listening.
Listening is not sitting there, letting information flow in one ear and out the other. You need to not only hear but understand what the other person is saying and be totally focused on them. The only time you pay attention to what the other person is saying shouldn’t be if you’re going to say something in return.
Tell the person your attention is on them by understanding and processing what they’re saying. If I don’t understand something, I am not afraid to ask them, “What was that again?” There’s no shame in that.
It will show you are trying to pay attention to.
The beauty of this? If you can show that you’re engaged and give a shit about the words coming out of their mouth, most people will drop their guard and trust you.
Use the body language of the person talking, too. Look at their body language. Are they leaning away from you? Do they seem tense?
Read that body language and use your body language to respond instead of interrupting. It makes a big difference.
If you want to listen more deeply, you need to learn how to ask good questions. This is one of the greatest skills of any listener. When you ask questions, people feel special because you care about what they’re trying to share. It creates a special bond between you and the other person. Here’s why it works so well: When you ask questions, you are showing that you are interested enough to try and uncover more, to dig deeper, to reach for a better understanding.
Listen for words that are said that you didn’t hear. Maybe the person didn’t say it, but they were implied. Listen between the lines, and try to hear the heart of what someone wants to say to you.
Listening to others is a skill. You have to practice it. You have to find ways to become better at it. Trust me — no one likes an annoying, interrupting, self-centred person who can’t find it in them to pay any attention to anyone but themselves.
You have to practice being more mindful of the other person. Be ready to turn the conversation towards them. Ask them about themselves and about what they’re interested in.
Ask them questions about their lives, their passions, their ideas. Engage them. It will take time, but you will find that people will start to listen to you more in return. They will appreciate your listening skills, and they will be more likely to ask you questions back.
Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, angel investor, communicator and creative director. She is the founder of branding and PR firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.
Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator of Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack.