Listen up!

by | 2 September 2021 | Verbal Communication

The art of listening is one which many people need to master. Rewarded more for our vocal contributions than our silence, many of us listen in a way which actually gets in the way of good communication! If you’ve ever realised that the person you’re talking to is not listening, but actually gearing up to respond, you’ll know what I mean. And if you’ve ever had feedback that you need to listen more, or listen better, then read on.

Listening means paying attention not only to the story, but to how it is told. The use of language and voice, and how the other person uses his or her body really matter. This means being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages. Your ability to listen effectively depends on the degree to which you perceive and understand these messages and your ability to listen without the intent of replying.

This post explores why listening well is sometimes difficult. It provides tips on how to improve almost instantly – the quick wins – as well as signposting to resources and support for greater skills development.

Why is it so hard?

Three things in particular make listening difficult.

  • The first is a desire to keep control of the conversation.
  • The second is wanting to demonstrate your intelligence and skills so you often want to jump in before you have fully listened to the person speaking.
  • Thirdly, you may hear them express feelings and emotions which you’re uncomfortable with. You think that this is not part of your role or that it is unprofessional and so you butt into the conversation as a way of stopping the discomfort.

Raising your awareness of these three things is the starting point to managing them.

Focus on the speaker

Put other things out of your mind. Let go of your preconceived ideas. If you think you don’t have preconceptions, here’s a challenge. Write down in advance what you think is going to be said – these are your assumptions. Together with your fears of the outcome of the conversation they block your ability to fully listen, and create a fixed mindset. By having an open mind you can more fully empathise with the speaker.

A little encouragement goes a long way. Nod or use other gestures or words to encourage the speaker to continue. Maintain eye contact but don’t stare. Manage your own behaviour – avoid unnecessary interruptions. Don’t scribble long notes, shuffle papers, look out of the window or pick at your finger nails!

Be patient and let the speaker continue at their own pace; sometimes it takes time to formulate what to say and how to say it. Never interrupt or finish a sentence for someone. Everybody will use different pitch, tone and volume of voice in certain situations . Noticing these things will help you to understand the emphasis of what is being said. Listen for ideas and metaphors – not just words. You need to get the whole picture, not just isolated bits and pieces.

Read the body

The body tells its own tale. Non-verbal communication is not a language with a fixed meaning. It is influenced and driven by the context in which it occurs. People tend to have much less conscious control over their non-verbal messages than over what they’re actually saying. This is partly because non-verbal communication is much more emotional in nature, and therefore much more instinctive. If there is a mismatch between the two, therefore, you should probably trust the non-verbal messages, rather than the words used.

Take it to the next level

Still feeling ambivalent about this topic? Remember, the impact of working alongside poor listeners goes wider and deeper than we think. Former journalist and FT correspondent Rebecca Knight’s article explores the subject from the other side and is well worth the 4 minute read. And internal comms consultant Jonas Bladt Hansen offers a deeper dive into what it is we most need to listen to.

If this post has piqued your interest, and you’d like a conversation about sharpening up your listening skills through executive coaching, get in touch.