How to Develop this Most Important Interpersonal Skill of Listening
One of our most basic human needs is the need to be heard and seen. Yet we live in a world where there is more transmitting than receiving.
Social media, email, video chats, etc. all exist to help you get your message and opinion heard.
We often think we are listening when in fact we are busy…
- Making the conversation about ‘me’
- Sifting and sorting for ideas that resonate for me
- Making connections with things that are also true for me
- Discarding things I don’t like
- Gathering evidence to refute, persuade or cajole the other into seeing my perspective
- Loading up my response and anxiously awaiting the moment I can respond
- Making up stories about the other person, that may or may not be true
- Drifting away, thinking about the past or worrying about the future
These are natural ways our brains function in a conversation, while it serves a purpose, it’s not really listening. So how do we develop this interpersonal skill of listening?
The Absence of Listening
Listening is foundational to communication and relationships with others.
You have likely experienced the absence of being heard in some way that led to feeling:
We may not intend to have this impact on others, the absence of listening creates a loss of connection and understanding. It’s a void that can raise the stakes in a relationship. When the stakes go up, conflict and breakdown emerge.
That can look like anything from avoiding talking with someone, or having the same conversation over and over again, or a full blown argument with raised voices. The roots of conflict can often be traced back to someone feeling misunderstood or not heard.
Three Ways to Build the Muscles and Interpersonal Skill of Listening
Skillful listening is one of the most impactful skills in navigating interpersonal relationships.
It’s the doorway to genuinely seeing and hearing what’s said and not said. It influences the questions you ask and the outcome of conversations. Just like muscles that you work at the gym, the “listening muscle” strengthens with practice. Here are three attributes to concentrate on:
1 Focus of Attention
Be here now. It’s natural for our mind to wander. When it does, use a phrase like ‘be here now’ to gently bring your mind back to focus on the conversation that you are having right in this very moment.
Focus on the other. Bring the person(s) in front of you into focus and soften your focus on other things. Remove your devices or other distractions from your view, which signals to you and the other person that they are important.
2 Quality and Depth
Come with Empathy and Compassion. Empathy opens up the ability for us to imagine what it might be like in someone else’s shoes. Compassion enables us to be helpful to the other. When you start a conversation from a place of empathy and compassion, rather than a place of apathy, sympathy, irritation, punishment, or desire to prove someone wrong, it changes the quality of your presence and listening and the impact you have on others.
Listen for what’s not being said. There are the words we speak and then there is what we are not saying as well. What’s in between the words someone is saying? What are they pointing out without explicitly naming it? What assumptions do you hear being made? What’s the energy and tone in their voice? Where do they pause and where are they excited?
Reflect. Reflect what you’re hearing and acknowledge the highs and lows. Being able to mirror back to someone what you hear them saying can be refreshing and clarifying for the other person. This is the moment when people feel an immediate resonance and when they realize that someone is actually listening. You might say things like:
- This is really tough for you right now.
- You seem very clear in your thinking.
- There is a lot happening for you right now.
- You are full of energy and excitement about this.
Inquire. Bring a mindset of curiosity and apply it when you practice skillful listening. Ask questions that deepen the conversation and create learning and insights for both the speaker and the listener. Listen to the words and phrases the other person uses and ask questions such as: :
- What was that like for you?
- What’s important about that?
- You said it’s hard – what’s making it hard?
- You said excited – what are you most excited about?
Suspend assumptions and solutions. When you notice that you’re starting to make assumptions or are tempted to start offering advice or solutions, pause and place those ideas in a mental parking lot – suspend them for the moment and use the ‘law of three’. If you have the same impulse three times then use that as a signal to ask the person for permission to share. You might say: “I have had a similar experience, would it be helpful to you if I shared what happened for me?”
Be willing to be changed. As you build the muscles of listening, be ready for change. Really listening to someone else can not only have a profound impact on them, but it can change you as well; if you allow it. I have watched someone enter a conversation with a very clear opinion on a certain topic and leave with a completely different one.. This happened because both parties were engaged and practiced ‘skillful listening’. It was through this conversation that not only did their opinions change, but the relationship became more connected because they felt seen and heard.
Over to You: How Do You Listen?
Is listening a skill you want to work on?
Will you be implementing these tips to listen with intent?