how to be a great listener

It’s a beautiful day in Seattle, so I decided to record today’s video in my back yard. Today, we’re going to revisit and update my list of the top ten ways to be a great listener.

One of the greatest gifts we can give our fellow humans is to listen, to really listen, to turn off our mental clutter and our desire to respond and correct. To listen without judging. To listen and understand. Being a really good listener is a big ask, so here are ten ways you can improve your listening skills right away.

Number 10. Lose distractions. 

Turn off the iPad, turn off your computer, close the book and pay full attention to the other person.  Create what Dr. Edward Hallowell calls a human moment where you connect by paying full attention to the other person.  How many of us have ever called tech support and been on the phone with them while we knew that they were Facebooking or checking email or doing something else?  You can tell, right?  So, lose distractions.

Number 9. Don’t finish thoughts or sentences for the other person.

Don’t you hate it when people do that for you?  One of the problems we have in IT is that we’ve heard the same problems many times in the past, so it’s understandable that we would jump to a conclusion about where our customer is going when they’re describing a problem. And 99% of the time we would be correct, but there’s that 1% of the time when they take an unexpected turn that changes the problem. If we have already finished the thought or sentence for them, we’ll miss the nuance that changes everything and possibly give an incorrect solution. So, let them finish even if you think you’ve heard it a million times and you may have.  This might be the one time when you hear something different.  It only takes a few seconds to let them finish.

Number 8. Don’t get defensive. 

When somebody’s giving you feedback, you don’t have to agree with them but listen to what they say because you might gain some insight that might help you.  I pay close attention to evaluations.  Sometimes I think oh my gosh, what are they talking about, and other times I think oh my gosh they’ve got a point.  So don’t get defensive.

Number 7. Paraphrase back what you just heard. 

This is the wisdom of Stephen Covey who says if you want to make sure that you understand somebody paraphrase back what they just said.  Now you may want to ask their permission. Let me make sure I understand you, I want to paraphrase this back just to make sure I get it. But paraphrase back.  That way you can make sure that you got the message that they intended.

Number 6. Listen to understand and remember what is being said, not just to jump in with your thoughts and ideas. 

Listen for deep meaning.  Focus on the other person.  It’s about them and their ideas, it’s not about you. Also, it’s not necessary that you agree with the other person. It is necessary, however, that you work to understand why they feel or believe the way they do.

Number 5. Make good eye contact. 

Now, this can get creepy if you go too far with it.  I had a friend years ago, I swear he must have taken some seminar that said you must always look people in the eye.  You’d be talking with him and he’d kind of be doing this.  You can go too far with it.  In this country, we have a mistaken belief that if someone won’t look you in the eye they’re being deceitful.  That’s simply not true but that’s what we believe and so in order to accommodate that cultural phenomenon we need to look people in the eye.  When you meet somebody for the first time look them in the eye, shake hands, and give them a smile. That starts off the relationship in the right way.  If you’re uncomfortable with how far to go with it let them lead you on it.  When they look away that’s the time for you to look away.  Get clues from the conversation.

Number 4. Allow natural pauses in the conversation. 

In today’s world, I wonder if we speak in a much more rapid-fire way than perhaps a hundred years ago. Today, it’s a cable news world where you’ve got to go fast, fast, fast and there can be no dead air because we’ve got to just keep going, keep the tempo and keep the pace up.  It can wear you out.  Allow pauses in the conversation.  Allow it to breathe.  Allow people to think about what you just said and what they’re saying.

Number 3. Ask relevant and open-ended questions.

You can’t come up with relevant questions unless you’re paying attention to what the speaker is saying. Open-ended questions are questions that can’t be answered with one word. They require some explanation.

Number 2. Keep an open mind. 

In Thomas Kida’s book, Don’t Believe Everything You Think, he talks about our six basic flaws in thinking and one of them is that we seek to confirm our preexisting beliefs and we seek to conveniently ignore anything that contradicts it.  So keep an open mind.  Be open to new information.  Be open to new ways of doing things.

And the number one way to be a better listener is to stop talking. 

To quote the Dalai Lama, When you speak the only thing you hear are things that you already know.  You only learn something new when you’re listening so stop talking long enough to listen, to hear what people are really saying.  

Being a good listener is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our fellow humans. It requires that we focus on the speaker and that we listen to understand and remember what’s being said. Being a good listener requires us to be intentional about listening well and aware when we start to drift away.

Learn How to Be a Better Listener

Build better relationships, both at work and in your personal life. Gain the respect of the people around you by becoming a better listener.

Become wiser by improving your listening skills.

Take my online, on-demand training The Fine Art of Listening Well: How to Be a Better Listener. Check out the course outline and description here.

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