One of the greatest gifts any of us can ever receive is the gift of listening. It is also one of the greatest gifts we can ever give. Unfortunately, it appears to be a lost art.
We live in a world where everyone is talking but few are listening. What often passes for listening is simply one person pausing to collect their thoughts for their next soliloquy. Just turn on your favorite talk radio or television show to experience a vivid example of this. (My personal favorite is Hannity & Colmes, where no one appears to be listening to anyone!)
Listening is difficult work. I don’t pretend to be good at it, but I am trying to learn. Like every skill, the more you do it, the better you get. Here are a few things I am trying to practice and that you can also do to improve your listening skills:
- Be fully present. This is where every great conversation begins. So often, we are distracted with other things. We try to listen while continuing to work on the computer or watch television. To be fully present means we eliminate these distractions and focus exclusively on the other person. It takes great effort to be fully in the moment, leaning forward, with your ears—and heart—open.
- Ask a question. I am trying to discipline myself to ask more questions. Instead of just commenting when it’s my turn, I try to ask a question about something the other person said. Perhaps they said something that requires further explanation. Maybe you need an example. Regardless, a question can help the conversation go deeper.
- Ask a second question. Great questions are the prerequisite for great conversation. Sometimes, like peeling the layers off an onion, you have to peel the conversation back with even more questions. It’s good to ask questions. It’s even better to ask lots of questions. The more you listen, the more insight you gather and the more relevant your comments will be.
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Words are only part of the communication. Sometimes we need to experience the other person’s feelings to really understand. We need to listen with our heart as well as our mind.
- Validate their thoughts and feelings. One of the worst things we can do when listening is invalidate the other person. “Why would you think that?!” Or, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” These kinds of words don’t move the conversation along; they stop it dead in it’s tracks.
- Repeat back what you have heard. When we do this—and do it accurately—we communicate that we understand. It also gives you an opportunity to re-calibrate your understanding if you misunderstood something.
Plenty of people are good talkers. Few are good listeners. If you develop the latter skill, you will find yourself invited into amazing conversations that wouldn’t otherwise happen.