Strategy #10: Listen, Damnit! To be successful in your career — and in life — you need outstanding listening skills. Sounds easy, right? But not quite. Most people do not listen at a deep level. With the pressure and pace of everyday life, our conversations skim along the surface. Instead of listening, we start thinking about what we’ll say next. Sound familiar? We get caught up in our feelings and our inner dialogue instead and wind up only hearing on a superficial level. When it’s work-related, we listen for the minimum of what we need to hear to get the job done. And now, with WFH and everyone multitasking…active listening is at an all-time low. I’d like you to think of an instance when you were not listening, and then your boss or someone asked for you to respond or asked you to take care of a project. What were the ramifications? Did you just apologize for not listening and ask them to repeat, or did you do what you thought you should have, only to find out you were wrong? Either way, I’m sure it was uncomfortable.
Being truly listened to is rare; that’s when another person is with you totally — leaning in, interested in every word, eager to empathize, feel with you, and fully understand. People open up when they speak with someone who is genuinely listening. They relax because they feel safe, secure, and trust grows. If you’re reading this and concerned that you could do better at this, luckily, listening is a skill that can be learned and developed through practice.
Let’s start with the basic listening level, which is when you hear the other person’s words, but your attention is on what it means to you. At this level, it is all about me: my thoughts, judgments, and feelings. We let our minds wander, “What should I have for lunch today?” or “I hope it’s not raining, I don’t have an umbrella,” or, worst of all, “How much longer do I have to listen to this?” It happens to all of us; Your mind drifts, you heard the words, but they didn’t register. At this level of listening, we are self-absorbed, and it feels noticeably disengaged and inauthentic to the speaker.
Active listening is when we listen with our senses and our intuition. We hear, see, and experience sounds, words, and feelings. We are focused on another person; we are looking at that person, observing their body language, noticing their expressions, hearing their voice pitch, and sensing their mood. As the listener, you are not attached to your plan, thoughts, or opinions. You are solely focused on hearing, understanding, clarifying, and empathizing. Your message to the speaker is, “I have time for you,”…and that is powerful. When people are listened to in this way, it communicates a more profound sense of support and encouragement and creates trust. This is how to actively listen.
With active listening, you have a picture of what is going on, but you want to take it a step further; you articulate and confirm your understanding of a conversation without any judgment. We’ve all been in those situations where a person says one thing but means another. Confirming your understanding of the conversation allows you, as the listener, to clarify what you heard and ensure that you understand the intended meaning. People can ramble, get foggy-brained, and misspeak, as demonstrated in the most recent Presidential election. Clarifying enables you as the listener to say, “Here’s what I’m hearing…” and “Is that what you intended?” This strategy helps the speaker and the listener be on the same page. I encourage you to try active listening and confirming what you heard with your boss or your partner. See what a difference it makes.
I’ll be the first to admit; I’m not the best listener. I can’t sit still because I have a running list in my mind of all the things I could be accomplishing instead of listening. But by genuinely listening and clarifying, we can improve our communication and our relationships dramatically. I did not focus on my listening skills until I went through coach training. It has been a dramatic shift for me.
One of the smartest people I ever worked with was a fantastic listener. He would intently focus on the speaker, stay absorbed in the discussion, and finish by asking a couple of clarifying and thought-provoking questions. He would then lock the info in his mind and later recall the details of the conversation. He was fully present for discussions and able to get to the heart of an issue very quickly. You always felt heard in his presence, and now he is the CEO of a very successful Fortune 100 Company.
Celeste Headlee, journalist and host of the Retro Report on PBS, shares a fantastic perspective on the value and act of deep listening on the TED stage here. I recommend watching and listening (wink wink) to this for more insight on the subject! The takeaway? There’s no downside to becoming a better listener.
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