Are you a good listener? What does it even mean to “be good at” listening?
Really, truly listening to someone else is a skill most people don’t possess. In any conversation, communication is happening on multiple levels. The words being said are not the only thing being expressed. There’s intonation, facial expressions, body language, and, of course, individual as well as interpersonal history to consider.
Instead of tracking all of these details, most of us listen to respond. And – spoiler alert – no one likes it when they feel like the other person is not really listening. It’s a recipe for interpersonal disaster.
Here’s the good news: Listening is a skill, like any other, that can be improved upon with practice. One useful way to learn how to listen is to use what’s known as active listening.
Active listening is a way of listening to another person to improve mutual understanding.
Here’s what I know about active listening: It’s hard to do, in part because people would rather be right than happy. Our work is therefore to move away from the “I’m right” stance and towards understanding the other person. Because here’s another psychological truth: When there are two people in conflict, the truth usually lies somewhere in between each person’s story. So your work is learning to change the desire to be right into the desire to understand the other person’s point of view. That’s where active listening comes in.
Active listening is vital because it keeps us engaged in the conversation in a positive way. This skill is foundational to any successful conversation whether it be at work, at home, or with friends. You have to be fully present in the conversation. You’re not listening just to the words being said, but paying attention to body language and giving your full attention to the other person’s cues.
Leaders, take note: Active listening facilitates better communication so there is less confusion about processes, goals, and results. Less confusion makes getting your job (and everyone else’s) done easier because everyone understands what they need to do and the reason behind what they’re doing.
Active listening is also good for team culture. When coworkers listen to each other, they have more empathy, which creates a more respectful and cohesive team.
Here’s a nifty pneumonic to help you remember what to do when it come to active listening…
The 4 As of Active Listening
Attention: Be fully present in the conversation. Put away your cell phone. If you are on a Zoom call, turn off distractions and notifications. Place your focus on the other person, and ignore everything else.
Attitude: Be open-minded. Be curious. Assume you know nothing. Ask open-ended questions instead of yes/no. Remember: You’re not looking for the truth; you are looking to understand.
Here are some examples:
Can you tell me a bit more about that?
What did you think about that?
What do you think is the best path moving forward?
How do you think you could have responded differently?
Adjustment: Be aware of your gestures, body language, and reactions as the story unfolds. As much as 65% of a person’s communication is unspoken. Lean in. Don’t fold your arms. Nod. Make Eye Contact.
Affirm/Appreciate: I call this the “Ted Lasso Rule.” Say things that help them know you are present and available.
Here are some examples:
I appreciate you taking the time to explain this to me.
I’m glad we’ve been able to have this conversation.
I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, so I’m grateful that you’ve given this conversation the time it deserves.
The last, most important task of active listening is also the hardest: Patience. Have patience with yourself while you learn a new skill, as well as with the other person communicating.
You’ve got to give the other person the opportunity to speak without interruption. When I work with couples, I sometimes ask them to take the other person’s side of the argument because they are so practiced at arguing that they aren’t really listening. And we are usually listening for what we can argue with, instead of listening for what we agree with.
So go forth and practice. And, as usual, let me know what you think, if you have questions, or if any of this has worked for you in the wild.