Listening well is hard work. It’s also rare, which makes giving your full attention one of the best gifts you can give another. It’s practical, too. The person with the most information is usually the one in control of the situation, and that’s often enough of an incentive to motivate you.
Set a goal for your listening—and fight off distractions. When you do so, you’ll be able to discern what’s relevant in the conversation and ultimately how to follow up appropriately. At work, we’re used to constant interruptions, whether it’s email, texts, or drop-ins. This works against you when you’re trying to concentrate and think clearly. As much as possible, limit distractions in your environment. Turn off your computer monitor and mute the sound of incoming messages and emails. If your mind wanders, immediately refocus as soon as you realize you’re drifting away.
Be alert to nonverbal cues—and make sure yours communicate accurately. Although it is critical to listen to what your counterpart says, much of what they’re communicating comes through their gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Do their nonverbal cues match what they’re saying or is there a discrepancy that makes you doubt their words? Do they seem nervous and anxious to finish the conversation even though they sound confident?
Make sure you’re looking the speaker in the eye. Research shows that in Western culture, looking someone in the eye will lead others to perceive you as trustworthy, honest, and credible. Focus your attention and really think about what you’re learning through the verbal and nonverbal information you’re getting.
Let your counterpart tell her story first—and don’t interrupt. Understanding the other person’s assumptions, objective, and needs sets the stage for a productive interaction. As tempting as it may be, resist the urge to interrupt. Beyond being rude, it may prevent the speaker from revealing valuable information. Even if what you hear is inaccurate, let the other person finish. When someone disagrees with you or shares something surprising, you’ll often gain valuable insights.
It’s impossible to listen and speak at the same time. If you’re speaking, you are not getting information—and getting information is the whole point of listening. If you have to speak, ask questions to get specific, useful information to uncover the other person’s wants and needs.
It’s amazing there aren’t more miscommunications during conversations; most people are so busy preparing their next thought that they don’t often hear everything being said by the other person. When you’re in conversation, really focus on the other person, stay in the moment, and seek to understand them. Confirm what you’ve heard and watch the reaction of the other person. It’s so rare to be fully heard that your partner will undoubtedly be surprised that you actually listened.
React to the message, not the person. If your counterpart says or does something you don’t understand, ask yourself, would you do the same thing if you were in his shoes? If you find it necessary to react negatively to a someone’s words or actions, make sure you attack the message, not the person. Emotions of any kind, especially anger, can hinder your ability to listen effectively. When you become angry, you turn control over to your the other person. Anger interferes with the problem-solving process and doesn’t put you in the frame of mind to make the best decisions.
Do not trust your memory. After your conversation is over, write it down—especially if it’s a negotiation. You’d be amazed at how much conflicting information can come up later. The ability to refresh your counterpart’s memory with facts and figures shared in an earlier session will earn you a tremendous amount of credibility and power. Writing things down may take a few minutes, but the results are well worth the time.
You can’t be everywhere and know everything. But if you listen wisely you can glean enough information to make it appear that you’ve done both.
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