7 Effective Ways to Practice Active Listening
If we were supposed to talk more than listen, we’d have two mouths and one ear according to Mark Twain. Don’t we all know somebody with two mouths? She’s the friend who, every time you mention you’re feeling a bit stressed, says “I know!” then launches into a list of woes and forgets to ask about yours. Or that colleague who swoops in and finishes your sentence, often not as you intended, every time you have the misfortune to pause.
Luckily, most of us also know at least a couple people who are, indeed, all ears. And how we treasure them! When you talk, you get the sense that they’re really listening, without judging. They don’t glance down at their phone or around the room while you’re mid-sentence. They’re present, digesting what you say and waiting for you to finish before deciding how to respond.
Are you one of those people? In the workshops I give on active listening, participants usually answer yes, they are engaged listeners. Then we do a few exercises. Before long it becomes apparent how prone to distractions we all are, and how much goes on in a conversation that we miss.
Try practicing these active listening skills with each face-to-face exchange:
Make eye contact. The Wall Street Journal ran an article (“Just Look Me in the Eye Already”) about how technology has adversely affected the amount of time we spend looking people in the eyes when we talk to them. To really build an “emotional connection,” we should make eye contact for 60-70 percent of the conversation, according to a communications firm cited in the article. In reality, adults only make eye contact 30-60 percent of the time.
Lose the distractions. One study by Nokia found that users check their smartphones an average of 150 times a day, every six-and-a-half minutes. So hide the urge! Avoid setting your phone on the table in a meeting. Keep it out of sight to help ensure each speaker has your full attention.
Never butt in. Even if a personal example hovers on your tongue that seems to perfectly illustrate what your friend is talking about, save it. You may have a chance to share it later, but for now, let the conversation be about her experience.
Respect the pause. This rule takes discipline. When someone pauses in the middle of a point and you think you know where he’s going, there’s a tremendous temptation to offer up the words that seem to be eluding him. You want to be helpful. You may also feel uncomfortable by the sudden silence. But just let it develop. He may take a different direction, and you don’t want to derail his train of thought.
Wait to respond. How often do you start mentally crafting a good response before someone finishes talking? We all do it, especially at times when we want to come across as knowledgeable or quick-witted. And there’s the pitfall. When you’re not actively listening, you could miss something that will make your reply redundant or illogical.
Don’t judge or offer solutions. Hold back any criticism and wait for the speaker to ask for your advice before sharing what you would do in her situation.
Show you’ve heard. Rephrase the speaker’s points in your own words to show you’ve listened and understood. You might begin, “It sounds like you …” Or ask for clarification: “Are you saying …”
These tips may sound pretty easy, things most people know they should do anyway. So why don’t they? Because, in practice, they’re not all that easy! It’s hard to hear about someone’s troubles and not offer solutions. It’s hard not to check why your phone keeps vibrating. And it can feel really awkward to sit there while a big silence bubble grows. But try to do it anyway. Learning to listen actively can deepen your relationships with family and friends, as well as improve your job performance.
Just think about how much time in each day you spend staring at screens and multitasking. Once in a while, give yourself the luxury of a few minutes to set aside the gadgets, look someone in the eyes, and listen.
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