Effective communication is one of the truest jobs of leadership. But more times than not, people confuse communication as talking alone. However, no matter how well you speak, how engaged you keep your audience, how informed you are on topics – listening is the key to becoming an effective communicator. And this is not just staying quiet while someone else is speaking, but actually hearing the words and feelings the speaker is conveying instead of thinking about your response will be. Whether they are offering suggestions, ideas, thoughts, or speaking to how they are being affected by something or feelings on topics, hearing the words that are being said and listening to understand, rather than listening to respond, is the key to active listening.
Now, though the expectation is to listen to understand rather than to respond, it does not mean that you cannot respond – it just means that when you understand first, you can respond more respectively and thoughtfully after.
So, how do we become better (active) listeners?
Spend Less Time Talking, More Time Listening
This one really is as simple as it sounds – if someone else has the floor, let them be the one doing the talking.
Read Body Language
Often, more than what is said is what is conveyed by body language. A lot of times, people are not comfortable expressing themselves if they think it might not be well received. If someone appears to be nervous, unsure of speaking their thoughts, reassess your own body language. Make sure you are expressing openness to hearing what someone has to say. For instance, if you are sitting/standing with your arms crossed over your body, you come across as being unreceptive, unwilling to listen, closed off. Make sure you keep your arms/hands open, the look on your face thoughtful, nod appropriately, make eye contact, let the speaker know you are engaged, vested in the conversation.
Don’t Answer a Question With a Question
One of the worst things is when someone avoids answering a question by asking a question. If you do not have an answer or need more time, be honest. Work together to come up with the answer rather than playing a cat mouse game of redirection.
Don’t Finish Other People’s Sentences
While this is considered a cute trait in friendships or relationships, it couldn’t be further from endearing in a business setting. Don’t assume you know what the other person is going to say – let the person speaking finish their own thoughts.
Focus On The Here and Now
Be present. Don’t think about what is on your to-do list, forget about what is on your calendar next, ignore the notifications coming through on your phone (better yet, turn off your phone). Give your undivided attention to the speaker, make the setting as distraction-free as possible to show the speaker you are in the moment, and care about what they are saying.
It is natural to have questions, it is natural to have responses, but there is a time for those to be expressed/asked – and it isn’t while the other person is speaking.
Ask Questions, Reflect Back What You Have Heard to Make Sure You Are Understanding
When you ask the speaker questions to understand their meaning more deeply, both of you benefit. You get a clearer picture of the message, and they get confirmation that they are being heard.
To further clarify their message, repeat it back to them in your own words. Knowing that you will do so gives you further reason to listen in closely, and they can also ascertain whether or not they’ve conveyed the right message.
Think About Your Response After Someone is Done Speaking, Not During
Take time after the speaker has finished speaking to reflect upon what was said and your thoughts. Show the speaker that you were actively listening and processing what was said instead of coming back with half-formed responses from only half-listening because you were busy thinking of what you wanted to say in the middle of their speaking.
Listening to respond and listening to understand are two different things. While both have their uses, when you’re looking to win a place in the heart or mind of another person, it’s the latter that will help you the most.
“The real road to a person’s heart is to talk about the things he or she treasures most.” – Dale Carnegie