How to become an “A” student in the Art of Deep Listening

In RUN-DMC’s catchy 80’s hip-hop tune “You Talk Too Much,” the artists castigate people who never shut up, right down to the line “Your mouth is so big, one bite would kill a Big Mac.” in this world of polarizing presidential candidates and non-stop social media rants, their lyrics continue to resonate as society overall seems a lot more focused on gabbing than listening. However, if you want to develop stronger connections and positive outcomes inside and outside of work, being able to listen intently to others is an essential skill. My husband, a rather foxy British expat, likes to say people have two ears and just one mouth for a reason – you create much more value from listening than constantly running your mouth. I couldn’t agree more. So here are a few tips for becoming an “A’ student in the art of deep listening:

1.      Step outside of the “me” zone. It is human nature to filter information from the perspective of one’s self. If Janet Yelllen is going to announce the Fed’s latest stance on interest rates, my first thought is “OMG, how will this information impact our new home mortgage?” (Apparently my inner monologue sounds like a Valley Girl). When you hear about a business merger or leadership change, naturally people wonder how it will impact their job. But in order to really comprehend and connect with another person, take yourself out of the equation. Let’s say a co-worker is talking about a challenge with his or her boss. Rather than hijack the conversation with colorful stories about the three worst leaders you’ve encountered, focus solely on what that individual is trying to communicate. Ask clarifying questions. Hear their highest hopes, worst fears and let them know someone cares. Bottom-line, people often just want to be heard and acknowledged. Paying attention to their comments and offering the desired level of outrage/support/solutions being asked for forges stronger connections for both parties.

2.      Tune out other distractions. Here’s a revolutionary idea…close your laptop and push away the smartphone during a discussion to give the person who is speaking your full attention. What was that, an outraged gasp at the notion of not checking for new texts every 17 seconds? As this NPR story posits, while technology is supposed to help people do more than one thing at a time, humans overall aren’t particularly good at multi-tasking. Turning away from your electronics to tune in to the conversation at hand is a smart idea.  Giving someone your full attention increases engagement and connection with that individual, while increasing your retention of information.

3.      Reinforce their key message points. Check in with the object of your conversation to ensure you fully understand what they are trying to express. While facilitating a recent strategic planning session, I reiterated the essence of each individual’s insights after they spoke, creating connections with other themes and discussion points being shared by the group. This practice allows people to confirm the intent of their messages and clarify points if needed – all while reinforcing how important their contribution is to the session.

4.      Recognize what is unsaid.  You don’t need psychic powers or a connection at WikiLeaks to understand what people aren’t saying but really mean. During my executive coaching certification program with the Coaches Training Institute, we learned there are three types of listening. Level 1 is all about you, focusing on what your inner voice is saying. In this place, thoughts like ‘I’m tired,” or “when will lunch arrive?” get in the way of fully absorbing the comments of the person before you.  Level 2 is focusing intently on what the others are saying. Level 3, known as global listening, is about observing and understanding what remains unsaid. For example, an individual might say everything they are handling as part of the company’s massive ERP project is just dandy while their slumped shoulders, “deer-in headlights’ expression and re-emergence of a stress-related facial tick argues otherwise. Listening on level three means you take in what the person is saying and also factor in their body language, interactions with others in the room and known “life variables,” (you know, stuff like a new baby, change in relationship status, health concerns) to understand the full picture.

Have any advice to share about improving listening skills, or a story about the consequences of poor listening?

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