7 Steps to Being a Better Listener
If there is one thing I’ve learned in my line of work it’s this: Listening is an essential skill for success.
I’ve spent 24 years in law enforcement and I can tell you, you don’t get confessions from criminals if it’s you doing all the talking. It’s impossible to solve cases if you don’t really hear what others are saying. When you aren’t listening, you are not hearing important facts you may need: viewpoints, attitudes, and beliefs others hold which reveal who they are and their motivations. You also miss the opportunity to make a personal connection that will move you toward your goal, whether that’s a confession from a criminal or better collaboration with a co-worker.
This holds true in leadership, too.
One of the key components of leadership is good communication skills. Great leaders are powerful communicators—that’s why leadership books and classes usually include topics such as “Communicating Your Vision,” “Having Difficult Conversations,” or even “Speak Like a Leader.” But the best leaders, the ones who really get the job done, aren’t only good at getting their message across to others. They are also great listeners.
Speaking is only half the communication process. The other half, equally important, is listening. Too often, we view listening as simply being quiet until it’s our turn to talk, but truly effective listening is more than that and requires conscious effort.
The more we listen to others, the more information they are willing to reveal about themselves, and the better we will understand them, their problems and their needs as individuals. John Maxwell talks about how leadership is influence; surely the first step to influencing others is understanding their needs and point of view.
Listening isn’t passive, but quite the opposite: It requires active skills and a conscious choice to be fully present, to hear not only what the other person is saying but the meaning behind their words, and even what’s not being said.
Active listening isn’t hard to do. It’s a set of skills easily learned and readily practiced. Start with these seven simple steps:
1. Eliminate distractions. This includes your phone, email and people dropping into your office. Author and radio host Krista Tippett said, “Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.” How many times have you tried to talk to someone, only to be continually interrupted by their cell phone or by other people? It was probably very frustrating for you to try and keep their attention on what you had to say. Show respect for the person talking to you by removing these distractions and truly focusing on who’s talking.
2. Make plenty of eye contact. It shows the person you are fully present in the moment.
3. Try a “listening posture.” I’ve learned to rest my chin on my thumb, and place my index finger over my lips. Not only does this position tell the person, “I’m listening,” but it also reminds me to keep my mouth shut!
4. Reframe ideas. Reframing or rephrasing what you heard from the person speaking helps you understand them better, and shows them you are trying to understand. You can use a phrase like, “What I’m hearing you say is…” or “If I understand correctly, you’re saying…” Not only does this technique help clarify ideas for you, it can also help the speaker clarify his or her own ideas and message.
5. Ask great questions. Listening isn’t just about hearing; it’s about truly understanding what the other person is saying. That means asking probing questions which actively seek more information and insight from the speaker. Conversation is a cooperative exercise, and good questions can help constructively examine and challenge old assumptions.
6. Focus on the positive. Good listeners focus on making the conversation a positive experience for the other person. This means looking for ways to validate the other person’s feelings, experiences and self-esteem. Keep in mind, validation requires empathy, but not necessarily agreement. When you validate the other person, you are effectively saying, “I see you and recognize your feelings and experiences. I’ve had similar ones myself.” We can do that without having to share the other person’s viewpoint or assumptions about a situation.
7. Participate, don’t compete. It can be easy to turn a conversation into a competition, either by engaging in one-upmanship or by arguing the validity of feelings and ideas. Listening is about seeking understanding and clarity, not convincing the other person to share your viewpoint. Remember, it’s a conversation, not a debate (unless it is a debate… in which case, go for it).
Performed well, listing can be a powerful tool for ensuring clarity, connecting with others and building collaborative relationships.
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Tony Leonard is a captain with the Georgia Institute of Technology Police Department and co-founder and lead instructor of Guardian Leadership.