Sitting preparing for a meeting the other day, I wrote – remember to listen. Why did I write such a bizarre thing? Because I don’t listen very well. Oh I hear what’s being said, but I’m not really listening.
I switch off, my mind wanders, I dip in, I dip out. I get the gist of things but I’m rarely fully engaged. I’m thinking about dinner or daydreaming or ticking off items on my mental to-do list. It makes me sound awful doesn’t it? I really wasn’t trying to be rude. I truly believed I couldn’t help it.
Isn’t it natural in this day and age for minds to easily wander? Aren’t we consumed with too many things? And if we do manage to stay focused on what somebody is saying, how many times do we stop listening as soon as we hear something we can provide a response to? Our minds shifting to formulating what we want to say, rather than hearing what is being said. We’re not listening, we’re just waiting for our opportunity to speak. With all this stacked against us, it’s near impossible to stay 100% focused on what someone else is saying. So therefore you should just try your best to listen. As long as you get the main bits all will be well, right?
You, we, I, are missing out big time. And we don’t even necessarily realise it – because we’re not listening. A conversation is more than the words being spoken, its the tone, the body language, the facial expressions. We can’t see the whole picture if we’re only processing part of the message being given. We lose opportunities to improve, to mend, to avoid error, to learn, to help, to grow.
And yet the achievement of the reverse is possible through listening. Listening and more specifically – active listening – is an invaluable skill that if practiced properly guarantees to improve your life.
Active listening is not a new concept, you may already be aware of it. Businesses introduce it often within their training plans as it’s proven to provide benefits. Active listening simply involves fully listening. I like to describe it as ‘listening with care’, giving the person speaking your undivided attention, trying to remain neutral by avoiding judgment or forming opinion. Very importantly, you need to pay attention not only to what is being said, but how it is being said.
Sound like a lot of effort?
Yes, and if you’re anything like me, this is a difficult process to master. But before you write it off, just look at the different ways in which it could help to improve your life…
The ultimate benefits of active listening
Let’s start with relationships…
How many marriages/partnerships have failed through not listening to each other? It’s really difficult to build and maintain relationships with people we feel aren’t listening. When you feel somebody doesn’t fully care about what you have to say, you’ll naturally assume they don’t care about you either.
Really listening to somebody be it a partner, family member, friend or colleague – says I care. It makes the other person feel respected and valued by you. You’ll also be able to actively interpret and respond to their needs, reducing conflict and creating much stronger bonds.
Anyone in need of some better advice?
Active listening will not only improve the advice you are able to give, but also the advice you are able to receive. Good advice better positions us to make more reasoned choices.
How do we gain better advice through listening? We hear all that is being advised and the reasons behind it – not just the bits we want to hear.
And when advising others, we are taking onboard the full picture before we impart our pearls of wisdom.
When we listen we learn. In order to grow, develop and ultimately improve our lives, we need to learn. If we close off in a conversation, we stop all opportunity to learn something new, blocking our own progression.
Whilst on first impression we may feel the person speaking has nothing new to offer us, you can never truly know where a conversation might lead unless you’re listening.
How would you like to get more done?
It’s been proven that active listening leads to fewer mistakes and greater productivity, be it in the work place or in everyday life. Whether for yourself or the people around you, everyone stands to benefit.
It opens up a whole new world!
Think of all the problems you’ll solve and new opportunities you’ll see! New points of view, new perspectives and new insights. You’ll also develop patience, tolerance and an edge on understanding people and situations. All this and more available to you just through listening!
Want to give active listening a try?
It couldn’t be simpler – start by making the conscious decision to listen and understand the message of the person speaking to you. Just like I made an actual note to listen fully to the other person involved in my meeting, you need to start by setting a clear intention to listen.
That also means no unnecessary distractions. Put phones away, laptops closed (unless they are required within the meeting), TV off. These simple actions tell your brain – OK this is something I need to give focus to.
It then gets a little bit trickier, but as much as possible, deter yourself from formulating your response until the other person has finished speaking. Ask questions and seek clarification if you need to, but other than that hear them out.
Good to know Active listening involves patience and practice. Here are some practical tips to help you develop this skill…
How to improve your active listening skills.
Firstly, you need to be ‘seen’ to be listening. Otherwise the person speaking may feel you’re uninterested in what they are saying and stop talking. Be conscious of your body language. Sit attentively, facing the person speaking. Maintain eye contact, nodding and smiling if appropriate.
You don’t need to be silent either. Encouraging the person talking to continue is important. Simply saying yes or even mmm hmm at appropriate points in the conversation will suffice.
If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate and your mind is naturally wandering, try repeating their words mentally as they say them. This will reinforce the message and help you stay focused.
Once the person has naturally finished speaking or asks you a question, that’s the time to formulate your response, processing all of the information you’ve been provided.
Good to know It’s important to be aware that acknowledging what somebody is saying is not the same as agreeing with what somebody is saying. Nodding or saying yes, is simply an indication to the person speaking that you are listening. Active listening does not involve agreeing with (or acting on for that matter either) everything somebody has said. You are more than entitled to your opinion.
I appreciate this can sound like a very unnatural process, especially when you’ve had a lifetime of listening in a different way. It’s difficult to immediately determine any additional benefits gained from changing the way you listened within a particular conversation. However, when you start to see relationships improve, your opportunities increase and all the other gradual but significant changes starting to have a positive impact on your life, hopefully you’ll be encouraged to continue to develop and practice this crucial skill.
And as if learning to improve how you listen to others wasn’t enough…
It is also very important that you learn to listen to yourself too. Once you have fully listened to the other person, develop your ability to hear what your own instincts are telling you too. Knowing you are taking action based on a much a clearer picture, should hopefully give you confidence in your decisions and deliver you some much better results.
Top Tip: Practising mindfulness helps you to improve your focus, a key element of active listening.
Read Being Mindful – Is mindfulness for you? to find out more.
So now I’ve completely outed myself for my rubbish (currently improving!) listening skills anyone else want to admit to needing practice? Or are you a naturally great listener? Let me know your thoughts, I’d love to hear from you (and I promise you’ll now have my 100% focus)