Growing up, there were many interesting, descriptive terms one could use to describe my behavior. One of them, however, was NOT “Sean is a GREAT listener.” I’ve always enjoyed the interaction with others- as a young extrovert (so I thought), talking to people gave me a huge boost of energy. Any time I could be talking to someone else, usually, that’s exactly what I would be doing.
However, it was not until I was made aware of my communication issues that it became apparent I was not a very good listener. During my Junior year of college at Coastal Carolina University, I read Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Specifically, I was assigned to examine and present Habit #5 to my class, which states: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.
That’s really what true listening is, isn’t it? To empathically listen in order to understand the other party’s views, values, and perspectives, so that we may create engaging, uplifting dialogue with that person.
Covey uses the example of an individual visiting an optometrist, explaining how they have had some trouble seeing clearly. The optometrist then takes off his glasses, hands them to the patient, and says, “Try these- they’ve been working for me for years! As a patient of this optometrist, you would be absolutely appalled that he did this, as you should be. However, Covey makes a very strong point in that many of us do this with co-workers, employees, friends, and family on a regular basis.
You see, he’s saying that we are prescribing solutions before diagnosing the problem. Just as this would be a backward practice for an optometrist, it is backward for us to try to speak our opinions or solutions into the lives of others without first fully understanding their issues. This practice results in unreliable co-workers, unhelpful friends, and disinterested family members.
I have studied this simply because it is one of the biggest aspects of my life which I am currently developing. I write this, not from a lectern or podium, but as a faulty human being who’s trying to get better every day. Here are 5 ways to become a better listener:
- Maintain Eye Contact
I don’t think you can discuss listening without first mentioning the importance of eye contact. How many times have you been at school, work, or home and tried to have a conversation with someone who was looking EVERYWHERE except your eyes? Not only do you not feel engaged, but it seems that the other person does not care about what you are saying. This is not a good feeling for the person talking and is one of the quickest ways to get them to shut you out of future conversations.
While we’re on the subject, it is IMPOSSIBLE to be texting or scrolling through social media while simultaneously staying fully engaged with another person. You may think this works, but it really doesn’t and is obvious to the person talking to you. If you must answer your phone, be polite enough to excuse yourself momentarily from the conversation, but do not nonchalantly try to keep it going while blatantly showing the other person that your phone is more important than them. I am guiltier of this than I care to mention, and have made a conscious effort to put the phone away when addressed by someone else.
- Practice Active Listening
Great listeners have a way of making you feel like what you are saying is important. Please note, this is NOT on accident. They have practiced active listening, and while it may be involuntary now, for a long time that person had to purposefully try to do this.
Nodding your head when you understand, repeating what the other person said in a summarized fashion, and clarifying when necessary are all forms of active listening. Not only does it help you stay engaged and allow the other person to feel valued, but you actually get more out of it as well because you genuinely understand their point of view. Which brings us to points #3….
- Realize that Great Listening is a Win-Win
Choosing to work on your listening skills does not just help the other party, it helps you just as much! Great listening means that you have a better understanding of your peers, which leads to deeper, more meaningful relationships.
You’re going to be more valued when you develop these listening skills, whether you realize it or not. You become a better person when you realize that sometimes the best strategy is to SHUT IT and listen J
- Use Listening as a Learning Opportunity
If you only ever listen to yourself, you’ll only grow as much as you can muster. If you listen with the intent to understand others, limitless knowledge and potential are at your fingertips. Knowledge is power and is not easily obtained by simply digging into your own reserves. We NEED to practice listening in order to maximize our learning potential.
Think of being a great listener as being very well read. You can almost always tell when someone reads often by the knowledge they obtain, and in a similar fashion, you can tell if a person is interested in learning new things by how willing they are to listen. I think you’ll find that as you focus more on listening, you will also gain valuable pieces of insight which you would have otherwise not known.
- Understand When Interrupting Is Okay
Interrupting someone seems a bit conflicting with this article’s message, but can actually be necessary/helpful in certain situations. For instance, let’s say a marketing intern at Company A is speaking with the Chief Marketing Officer. The intern begins stating an issue they have had with implementing leads from the old CRM into the new one. As the intern is talking 1,000 MPH, the CMO politely interrupts and assures them that the issue can be resolved. The CMO then shows the intern why the issue was occurring, and then gives specific instruction to ensure there are no further issues.
This is an example of someone in authority who decided to interrupt BECAUSE further conversation would have gotten them further away from the solution. Rather than allowing the intern to further confuse themselves with the issue, the CMO decides to quickly explain why it’s occurring, and then works with the intern to ensure they understand how to fix it. Notice that the CMO is not condescending, and was willing to hear the problem in the first place.
Be careful with this point- usually the answer is to allow the other person to fully finish with their thought before interjecting. However, with enough practice, we can all develop the necessary skills to determine when to interrupt, and how to become GREAT listeners!