“To say that a person feels listened to means a lot more than just their ideas get heard. It’s a sign of respect. It makes people feel valued.”
– Deborah Tannen, author and professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University.
I’ve written a lot about listening, because it’s such a vital skill – not just in leadership, but in life. Listening is fundamental to all our interactions and to our relationships with ourselves and with others. Listening to someone is not only about them feeling heard, but seen and felt, too. And rather than just using our ears to hear, the best listening uses all of our senses – including our emotions and our intuition.
Much research has evidenced the importance of listening. The benefits are varied: including the personal, organizational and societal, and many resources have been created to improve this essential skill. However, I have many coaching clients who still struggle with their communication skills – especially listening – because it is taken for granted. It’s not a skill that they regularly update and practice with consciousness or with an aim to improve.
So, here’s a reminder of some excellent listening basics, to enhance your existing listening skills.
1. Ignore external distractions
Although most of us don’t blatantly check our phone or emails when face-to-face with someone or meeting in person, when we’re speaking on the phone or video-conferencing, there’s always a temptation to try to multi-task in some way. Put away your phone and don’t glance at your laptop or try to read emails and documents while you’re talking to anyone. This goes for gazing out of the window or around the room. If you’re doing other things, your attention is divided, and you are not listening to the other person properly. Pay attention to the person.
2. Quiet your inner voice
Co-Active training describes three essential levels of listening, of which Level One is Internal listening – to your own internal monologue, self-talk, thoughts, feelings, judgements and conclusions. We may hear what the other person is saying, but our concern is more about what it means to us. Think about your conversations. How often do you:
- think, “What shall I say next?” or plan what you’re going to do, while the other person is talking.
- say, “A similar thing happened to me…” or “That reminds me of when I…” and go on to tell your story.
- give your own opinions or solutions to the person talking?
Sometimes our minds race, or are full of things irrelevant to the person. Sometimes what they say triggers our own memories or opinions – and it becomes about us, instead of about the person talking. In conversation, don’t be thinking about planning what you’re going to say next, or about your next meeting. Clear your mind of your own thoughts and focus on the other person and what they are saying.
3. Be present in the moment
We can learn a lot from mindfulness – which involves filling your mind with the sensory experiences you’re having at the current time, which leaves no room for self-talk. Use all your senses to listen to the other person and fully ‘be’ with them. Practise mindfulness and use it to notice everything about the other person and what they’re saying.
4. Listen with your whole body
This is Level Two – focused listening on what someone is saying, without your own agenda, thoughts or self-talk getting in the way. You activate your feelings, empathy and compassion and observe not only what the person says but also how they say it through their body language and non-verbal cues: tone, speed of speech, facial expressions, emotions and energy. In your conversations,
- When does your internal chatter disappear?
- How does that feel?
- How can you do this more?
As a leader or manager, when you listen and truly pay attention to what the other person is experiencing, this can enhance your ability to address issues and solve problems. For the person being listened to like this, they feel supported and encouraged.
5. Be empathetic
“We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.” Brené Brown
Aim to understand, without judgment, and they will feel respected and supported. When we are able to do this – we are able to build connection with individuals and teams so that we can navigate and contribute in ways support ourselves and others.
6. Listen to your environment
Or Level Three Listening – which uses your whole body and all your senses, including your intuition or ‘sixth sense’ to appreciate the environment and energy around you, as well as what is going on between you and the other person. You might notice a sensation or energy and say, “I’m feeling that you’d like to run away” or “I’m sensing your discomfort. Is that right?” How often do you:
- pick up on the ‘unsaid’?
- adapt, in response?
- notice the impact you have, in conversation?
7. Practice active listening
American psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson first used the phrase “active listening” in 1957. It involves summarising, paraphrasing or repeating the key points of what you’ve heard and shows that you’re listening. Other ways to do this are through your body language – by giving good eye contact, nodding, or leaning in. Obviously, don’t overdo this – there’s a fine line between subtly echoing important words or giving encouraging looks, and mimicry or exaggeration. But your body language can add energy to the interaction. You might be listening hard, but you also have to make it evident to the person that you are really listening to them – active listening helps to show that.
Improv (improvisation) is unscripted – to do it well, it requires really listening to someone, and responding with intelligence. Practice your improv skills in a conversation, without planning ahead. Respond in the moment to what the person says. Get comfortable with not knowing what to say or ask next; instead, use what the other person is saying to trigger what you say, in the moment. That shows that you are really listening to them.
If you find yourself talking instead of listening, ask yourself WAIT: “Why Am I Talking?” That’s not to say you can’t talk at all –this is just to check your motivation. Are you talking to focus on the other person and demonstrate empathy or understanding, or are you talking about yourself and your own agenda, or showing off your knowledge/experience? This consciousness of your own behaviour is especially important for people in leadership or positions of power, because people will defer to you and let you steer the conversation. It’s about being self-aware, and doing more listening than talking, to join the person in their world.
There is meaning in the silence, so don’t be afraid to keep quiet while people process what they want to say. Listening requires practice – like any other skill. To my coaching clients, I offer an acronym: LISTEN, to develop listening skills:
L earn. List your listening strengths, and your areas for growth. Listen to learn.
I ntention. Set an intention to build your practice of listening.
S enses / situation. Listen with your head, heart and body in different situations.
T end to other people. Focus on the other person, with curiosity.
E xplore understanding. Repeat, reflect, or summarise what you’re hearing to establish understanding.
N oise-reduce. Quieten your self-talk. Create space for silence, reflection and processing.
Be open to learning, in listening. Don’t assume you have to solve people’s problems or have all the answers. Listen in order to learn and don’t be afraid to stay quiet, use your intuition, and notice any changes of energy in your listening.
Whichever listening style or method appeals to you, affirm your intention to maintain a listening practice and you will reap the benefits of deeper, meaningful interactions and closer connections with others.
Please feel free to download my new resource Designing Your Leadership Self-Reflection Practice – Guided Writing Prompts – packed with tips, tools, and guided prompts to launch your leadership self-reflection practice as you continue to strengthen your leadership.
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