We have spent years learning how to read, write, and speak; yet what about listening? What training have we received that teaches us to deeply understand another human being and to be an exceptional listener?
If you’re like most people in conversation, you probably seek first to be understood. You want to get your point across and in doing so, you ignore the other person’s entire message by selectively hearing parts of the conversation and missing its actual meaning.You filter everything you hear through your life’s experiences – your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your own autobiography and see how it measures up. You conclude, prematurely, what the other person is conveying even before they’ve finished speaking.
Recently I was asked to give a brief presentation on the power of listening to a group of new mentors. As I thought about shortening what should be a four-hour training session I came up with the following five steps to improve listening:
1) Effective listening starts with self-awareness. Developing awareness takes your intention and attention. Through mindfulness and noticing, you can track your interactions with others. Tracking provides key details about yourself so you are able to notice patterns that may trigger you to not be your best self.
A simple way to help build your awareness is to practice presence. Try this trick for 10 – 30 days: remind yourself to stop several times a day. Take a few minutes to relax your body, and breathe deeply and slowly several times. While you do this observe and silently (without judgment) ask yourself what do I see, feel, hear, and smell. Notice the colors, level of light, how the air feels and smells, etc..
Practicing and building your ability to be present, allows you to see where your thoughts and emotions take you. You’ll be able to recognize warning signs so you can train yourself to make adjustments to the thinking, actions, and behaviors that do not support what you want or need.
2) Quiet your mind! Prepare your external environment for listening. Move to a quiet location, turn off cell phones, sit in a comfortable place, face or sit next to each other, breathe, relax and remain present.
Notice when you jump to a conclusion when someone is talking. Do your best to remove bias, judgment, and assumptions while you are listening. The longer we know someone the more history we have. Remember that each of us are growing and learning in our relationships. But because there is history, doesn’t mean you know what is going on inside another person’s head.
3) Remember the differences between hearing and listening. Hearing ensures safety. You filter what’s being heard through your experiences and quickly label it as a threat, as non-important, or noise. This tuning out method is commonly used when we communicate. We listen to respond rather than listen to understand, learn, extend dialogue and to deepen our relationships.
Use empathic listening – listening through use of your head and heart. Listen until the other person feels understood emotionally and intellectually. When you are empathically listening, you understand their feelings; you listen for meaning.
4) Listening is more than hearing words. Since 93% of all communication is exchanged non-verbally, you need to read the tea leaves of another person’s message. Look for the message being conveyed through body language. Does it match their words? What about their tone of voice? Does it match the message their words give or is it saying something different?
Even though 55% of communication is shared through body language and 38% through tone of voice, don’t assume what you are reading is correct. If the words and the tone of voice aren’t matching the message ask questions to gain clarity.
5) Understand your stories. Stories provide the rationale for what’s going on. They are your interpretations of the facts and help explain what you see and hear. They are theories you use to explain why, how, and what.
As we communicate, our stories overshadow and taint the message we are hearing. It isn’t long until our body responds with strong feelings or emotions linked to the story. When negative emotions are invoked, they are directly linked to our judgments of right/wrong, good/bad, fair/unfair, etc.. When our emotions are engaged watch out!
When our negative emotions push us off the ability to listen rails we have two options: 1) we can act on them or; 2) be acted on by them. To help us understand if our stories have hijacked our ability to listen, we need to slow down and track them. Next we need to retrace the path to their creation
Either our stories are completely accurate and propel us in healthy directions, or they’re inaccurate but justify our current behavior; making us feel good about ourselves and calling for no need to change.
It’s this second kind of story that typically gets us in trouble, makes us assume, fill in non-factual data/details and hinders our ability to empathically listen.
When we can improve our self-awareness of how we communicate by quieting our minds, setting the stage for listening, understanding that our communication is much more than words, and we can see how our stories may be getting in the way of empathic listening we can then improve our ability to deeply connect with others.
I leave you with this week with the Chinese symbol that represents the word listen. The symbol includes four parts or words: ears, eyes, heart, and undivided attention.