One of the things I enjoy is good conversation. I love the mutual sharing of stories, thoughts, experiences, opinions, laughter and even tears. Conversation helps us to connect with other people and build relationships. But it’s also fraught with the potential for misunderstanding, disagreement and offence. How we listen is a key factor.
I’ve been told that I’m a good listener, but actually, I’m pretty hit and miss too. Sometimes I do it well, but other times I’m distracted. And it may not have anything to do with the other person or what they’re saying. If I’m not intentional about listening, the chances are that I’m not going to be fully present in the conversation.
I think listening well is an expression of love and respect for the other person. I’ve been thinking about what it means to listen well, and how I can improve the way I listen. Here are some of my thoughts in the context of a face-to-face conversation with one person.*
L – Look at the speaker
Maintain eye contact as much as possible, to let them know that they have your attention. Avoid being distracted by other things going on around. Looking at something else suggests that you’re not interested. You can’t listen properly if you’re distracted by something else. My sister will not let me get away with playing Angry Birds on her iPhone if I’m supposed to be having a conversation with her. And she’s absolutely right.
I – Interrupting is not an option
Unless her hair is on fire, what you have to say can wait until it’s actually your turn to speak. Don’t finish a person’s sentence for them, especially if they’ve paused to search for the appropriate word. It’s their story, let them tell it. If you need to clarify something, politely stop them for a moment and ask them to explain or expand before they move on.
S – Suspend Judgement
The goal is to understand what they’re saying and the meaning and intention behind it so you need to suspend judgement. You may not always agree with everything being said, but if you lead with your own set of opinions and beliefs then you’ve stopped trying to see things from their perspective. To build relationship, they need to know that they are valued, even if you don’t agree. You may even find your perspective being broadened.
T – Think about what You’re hearing not what You’ll say
I’ve fallen into this trap more than a few times. I’m suddenly reminded of a great story, a relevant experience or a pithy comment (okay, not so much of the last one), and I’m so busy preparing to share it that I miss the rest of what they’re saying. Resist the urge to inflict it on them. It’s not a competition. If they want to know what you think they will probably ask. If not, it was better left unsaid.
E – Engage
Respond at appropriate moments so that they know you heard and understood what’s being said. Asking good questions can also help to draw out a point, show that you’re listening and that you’re interested in hearing more. Sometimes a good question can also lend a fresh perspective, and allow the other person to consider their experience, story or issue in a new light. But be careful that any questions don’t stray too far into the realm of unsolicited advice.
N – Non-verbal cues are important clues
Words are often an imperfect or edited version of what a person is really saying. The other day I was listening to someone talk about her upcoming surgery. The words sounded measured and matter of fact. I could have concluded that she was quite calm and positive about it. But I was also paying attention to the non-verbal cues, and I recognised her unspoken anxiety. Non-verbal communication says a lot about the meaning and emotion behind the words. If you really want to understand a person pay attention to their facial expressions, gestures and posture.
What about your thoughts on listening? I’d love to know your experiences and suggestions on how to listen well.
* Is face-to-face conversation a dying art in the world of social networking, SMS and Twitter? Maybe that will be the subject of a future post.