One of the best things you can do to improve conversations and relationships and be more successful – in both business and everyday life – is to become a great listener. It’s a learned skill. So, how do you do that?
First, understand that effective listening is an activity. Don’t just sit there passively waiting for the other person to finish talking.
Don’t mentally compose and rehearse a script so you’re ready with a witty reply. You could miss something important and make a comment that shows you weren’t really paying full attention. You will have something you’d like to say, but you might not get the opportunity. Be ready to let it go.
Direct yourself to be curious, attentive, and committed to learning what’s important to the speaker. Gather information from the words and body language.
Show that you’re interested and paying attention: make eye contact, let yourself be comfortable being silent, lean in, nod, smile when appropriate, add in some occasional uhuh’s – but don’t lapse into a meaningless rhythm.
If you have something to say, look for natural pauses. You can share details that pertain to you but keep it short and relevant to the conversation. Don’t launch into a pitch, story, or lecture and make it all about you.
Take your cues from the other person. Base your response on what you’re hearing – or what you’re being asked. Note bits you might want to pick back up later – like, “you mentioned you’re going on vacation soon. Where do you plan to go?”
Ask questions that show you’re paying attention. Don’t ask a lot of closed-ended questions – ones that require a yes or no answer. Instead, ask more open-ended ones that encourage a greater response. For instance, “what brings you to this event?”
Encourage people to go deeper and share more. For instance, you might say: “What happened next?” or “How did you feel about that?” If you get distracted or need clarification or want to show you’re following, bring your focus back to the matter at hand and ask a question: “I think you’re saying that …. Is that right?” If it’s not quite right, they’ll correct you and you can get back on the same page.
Listen so closely that, if the other person loses the train of thought, you can pick it up: “You were talking about ….” This shows you were listening and care. This helps the person feel good about you. That’s what you want. Even if it’s someone you disagree with, you can show respect and be amiable. If you think you have nothing important in common, you could be surprised if you listen with an open mind rather than a preconception.
This is not the time to insist on your agenda and point of view and be judgmental. That pushes people away. They get defensive, which pretty much shuts down the conversation, and maybe the relationship. If you don’t want to talk with this person and don’t have to, politely move on.
People like to talk about themselves and feel heard – give them that opportunity. You learn more from listening than talking. Don’t have your phone visible or turned on. That’s a turn off. Don’t be gazing around the room, trying to see what else is going on. Don’t multi-task. This is an up-close and personal conversation. Stay focused on it – or, if you can’t, bow out gracefully.
Practice active listening every day with family and friends so it begins to come naturally – in both high and low stakes conversations. You will find that people tend to like you, trust you, and tell you more. Alan Alda said, “Listening is a willingness to be changed by the other person.” That means remaining open, not having to be right, being receptive to new information that could take the conversation in a new direction and deepen the relationship. And if you think that’s a waste of time, consider that people tend to do business with people they like.