Professional Development | Improving Core Listening Skills

Improving Core Listening Skills

By Dan Finerty, Director of Marketing, MWCUA

What’s more frustrating than being in a conversation and not really being listened to? We can probably all recant plenty of occasions when we’ve felt unheard, dismissed, and unimportant to the person we are trying to talk to.

However, while we can all agree that there are plenty of poor listeners in the world, most of us are reticent to admit that we might be among them. Be brutally honest with yourself and consider whether your own listening skills could use some fine-tuning – or, perhaps a complete overhaul.

Research shows that the average person remembers just 25% of what they hear. Developing the skills to listen – really listen – is not only the mark of a great leader, but will strengthen all your relationships, professional and social.

Here are 5 ways to become a better listener.

1. Clear your mind. Before you begin a conversation, ask yourself if you are ready to be focused and present. The more important the conversation, the more important it is to be calm, clear-headed and focused. If you realize that you are distracted by something else, either delay the conversation or take a couple of minutes to focus your mind before you begin.

2. Remove distractions. As much as we like to think we’re capable multi-taskers, we’re probably not. Research shows that humans aren’t really all that great at multi tasking.

Just because technology allows us to do several things at once, doesn’t mean our brains are adept at multi-tasking. In fact, our brains actually can’t focus on two things at once. Rather, it switches back and forth between the two. So, if you’re trying to do anything besides just listen to the person speaking, there are times when you are not listening at all, even if you think you are.

Not only does multi-tasking while in the midst of a conversation keep you from being focused on what is being said, it is dismissive and rude to the other person. Before starting a conversation close the laptop, put down your phone and do just one thing: listen.

3. Don’t interrupt. Ok, so this isn’t rocket science. We all know we should wait for the other person speaking before we respond. So, why do we all talk over each other so much of the time?

Maybe it’s because we’re always in a hurry… or feel like we’re in a hurry, even when we’re not. Maybe it’s because we think we understand what the other person is trying to say and can’t wait to chime in. Maybe it’s out of habit. Regardless, when we force ourselves to wait to speak until the other person has completed their thought, we are more open to really understanding what they mean.

When we’re not eagerly trying to contribute our own thoughts, we can be more sensitive to the other person’s needs. In fact, it’s sometimes best to let a few seconds go by even after the person has appeared to finish their thought. When I force myself to create pauses in the conversation, I often find that the person I’m speaking with has something to add – a thought I would never have known had I rushed in with my response.

4. Stop making assumptions and ask more questions. We all know the old adage about assumptions, and yet, if we aren’t mindful about checking them at the door, our brain goes to work creating them almost as soon as the person we are speaking to opens their mouth.

When we make assumptions, we inject the conversations with a perspective (spin) that makes it nearly impossible to have a meaningful conversation. The person speaking might be saying one thing, but we are hearing another simply because our mind is not open to receiving new information.

One way to make sure we ARE open to what the other person is really telling us is to ask more questions. It’s difficult to assume you already know everything while simultaneously asking for new information. Asking a lot of open-ended questions is particularly useful at the beginning of a conversation. When you ask for clarification at the start, there is a greater chance of heading off any potential misunderstandings. Asking questions at the beginning of the conversation also causes the other person to feel that you actually are listening, putting them at ease and making it easier for them to communicate what they need to.

5. Read between the lines. No one communicates only with words. When we give the other person our full attention, we have a greater chance of noticing important non-verbal cues.

We are not always great at saying exactly what we mean. Fortunately, our body language can provide the context necessary for understanding when our words fall short. Pay attention to facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc. Think, “What do you think the other person is feeling? What are they really trying to say?”, and then ask more questions to gain clarity.

While you’re at it, pay attention to your own body language. Make sure to face the person you are speaking to, uncross your arms, make eye contact, take a deep breath and relax.

Finally, no one is a perfect listener. If you are knee-deep in a conversation and realize you haven’t really been listening, be honest with whoever is talking. It’s ok to tell them that yes, you are interested, but just got a bit off track. Ask them to please repeat what they are saying, this time with your full attention.


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