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How to learn to listen (and make others listen to you)

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Starting from infancy, we place a lot of emphasis on mastering verbal skills to help us learn how to communicate effectively. Of course, being able to talk is vital, but if no one is listening, our words are just noise, and there’s little meaningful exchange of information.

Author Janie van Hool, who trained as an actor and is now an expert in spoken communication, points out the shortcomings in how we are taught the art of communication. While education in speaking is ubiquitous, “only two per cent of people have had formal education in listening”, she says in her new book, The Listening Shift.

The consequences of that are keenly felt in all aspects of life, but perhaps none more so than in the workplace as we rush from conversation to conversation in meetings and calls.

Poor listening skills can have dire consequences for projects

If the project leader doesn’t know how to listen, team members won’t be heard. Essential tasks may be carried out badly or even not at all because of misunderstandings. Poor listening can also lead to feelings of distrust and disempowerment, while also hindering collaboration.

When it comes to customers or clients, there’s another set of potential repercussions that can arise from failing to listen, not least the fact that it can cost you and your company their business and loyalty.

So, how can you change your approach to ensure you are paying attention to what you are being told and, in turn, establish yourself as a voice that others will listen to?

1. First, are you listening to yourself?

This matters, van Hool argues, because effective listening requires a person to be able to push away distractions and interruptions and be present in the moment. You won’t be ready to listen or notice what’s going on with another person unless you can clear some headspace for yourself. One tip for achieving that is to practise mindfulness techniques, such as taking the time to notice what your own emotions and thoughts are, then listing the things blocking your ability to be fully present. Focusing on your breathing can also help you gain control of your emotional state, so you are in a better mindset to listen well.

2. Develop social empathy

To build connections, you need to consider the mindset, behaviours and actions of the people you should be listening to and influencing. Consider what the other person is seeing and hearing, what motivates them, what scares them, what they think and what they say. This might provide you with a new perspective, which can build empathy.

3. “The quality of your listening determines the quality of the other person’s speaking… and vice versa”

This is a key message from the book – by listening well you set up another person for success and by speaking well you help the other person listen with more care to what you have to say. Behaviour in meetings shows how poorly this is understood. What usually dominates is a ‘now you, now me’ approach where we put up with a colleague wanting to say something, just so we can quickly go back to talking and expressing our own view. It’s a waiting game, it’s not genuine listening and leads to interruption and misinterpretation.

To avoid that happening in future, try observing these rules. When speaking keep your messages brief and clear; don’t ramble. Speak for yourself, don’t mind‑read and take pauses so you allow your listener to paraphrase. When listening, focus on what is actually being said, don’t misrepresent what you are being told and refrain from interrupting or contradicting the other person.

4. Practise skilful questioning

When a question is phrased to serve your concerns or needs rather than out of a genuine wish to find out what’s happening with the other person, you are guilty of not listening properly. For example, this wording is not helpful: “When will you have that monthly report ready… Wednesday?” There’s little room for a proper reply. Instead, ask interested questions that allow your listener to respond with answers that will benefit them. Asking “When do you think you will have that monthly report ready?” is going to be much more effective. It signals to your listener that the conversation is not one-sided.

5. Welcome those ‘awkward’ silences

Silence in a conversation can be empowering once we learn to be comfortable with it. As a listener, it provides the space to think a bit more deeply about what to say or do next. However, the urge to fill uneasy gaps in conversation is strong. To overcome that, it can help to build your understanding of why silence has value in a conversation. Think about how it feels when someone asks your advice then interrupts your flow of thought, asks irrelevant questions or turns the focus back to themselves. There’s no room for reflection or to gather your thoughts.

To improve your deliberate use of silence, practise allowing the other person to finish what they are saying without interrupting, then count to five before responding. Do that after each question you ask. It will strengthen your presence and lead to a better-quality conversation.

And finally, keep energised…

Don’t forget that listening requires concentration. It’s easy to overlook the importance that our diet and routines can have on our ability to concentrate. Avoid foods and drinks that deplete your energy levels and reduce your ability to listen well. This might include caffeinated drinks and sugary snacks that leave you feeling de-energised later in the day, once their energy-boosting effects have worn off. Regular exercise and good sleep habits will also help you be more attentive amid the busy working day.

You can learn more about effective communication at Think Differently 2021, the conference for the people behind the projects: you.

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