The Art of Effective Listening

What does it feel like to be truly listened to? When someone is really interested in what you want to say? We like it when people listen to us, but how often do we expect people to do this for us without us taking the time to listen to them?

Listening is an essential communication skill. Improving our listening skills can have a valuable impact on all areas of our lives. It can improve the relationship with our loved ones, lead to improved connections with friends, help us to understand better what’s needed from us at work, help us to understand what a customer really wants.

I like to think of a conversation like the creation of a piece of art. The speaker is the artist (and in collaborative work, there might be multiple artists). At the core of their artwork is a message or emotion that they want to convey. As they speak they might paint a picture in your head, or a film of video, a story or a composition, or completely immerse you in an event. You will get their message most clearly if you can start with the blank canvas of a clear mind, and are able to resist adding your own thoughts, judgements and assumptions into the creative mix.

Some parts of the message will be clearer than others. By asking questions you can make sure that the understanding you are getting is what they want to communicate. Immersing yourself mentally and physically into their world will lead to a much deeper understanding, increase your connection with them, and lead to new learning and insight for you.

What Influences My Ability to Listen?

One of the important things to realise is that listening isn’t just about hearing words. A study by Albert Mehrabian in the 1960s concluded that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and only 7% is the actual words spoken. The actual figures vary by context, but when we step back and think about it we can see that we do prefer to use all of these elements in communicating what we mean. Meeting in person (when we have all three) tends to provide us with deeper communication than on the phone (only tone of voice and words), or by email (words only).

Another thing which has a major influence on our listening skills are our own judgements and experiences. They tend to filter and influence what we hear and the interpretations we make. The things that are important in our world and our rules on how things work are different enough from those in someone else’s world that we can completely misunderstand what they are actually saying.

When we listen effectively we use a wide range of information – what we are seeing, hearing and feeling – to try to build a picture of that person’s world, recognising that their world is different from ours. The more we try to understand and get into their world, and understand it the better listener we are. As a result our communication improves and we feel more connected.

How Could I Improve?

There is no step by step formula for listening – it is more of an art than a science! However, there are techniques that you can learn to improve your listening skills. These are often referred to as active listening and are a core set of techniques taught as part of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

1. Ask Questions

Image with "what do you mean?" written
Simple clarifying questions can lead to a much deeper understanding.

The best way to communicate your interest in what someone is saying and to find out more is to ask questions. While this sounds pretty obvious, whats more important is to ask the right sort of questions. Questions come in two forms:

  • closed questions that encourage a yes/ no answer – which are useful for quickly checking facts,
  • open questions, which encourage a longer, more detailed answer.

In order to get a deeper understanding of the world this person lives in, you want them to talk about it, so asking open questions is important. These questions often start with Who, What, Where, When and How.

If you’re not sure what question to ask, something which can be really useful is to consider how clear your picture is of what they are talking about. Where are the fuzzy areas? Ask questions to get them to clarify those areas, adding more detail. It may be that these areas are things that they aren’t clear about themselves – so getting them to talk about it can add a lot of value to them too.

2. Clear your mind

Have you ever been in a situation where you’re in conversation with someone and you hear your name mentioned by someone else close by? You keep the conversation moving along with one person while trying to listen into what’s being said about you. In the process the quality of the conversation you were having goes down significantly as it becomes clear that you’re no longer listening so attentively.

In reality, this happens all the time, except that the distracting conversation is the one going on in our head. This is one of the biggest barriers to effective listening.

Graffiti drawing lots of interconnected systems
The thoughts in our head interfere with our ability to listen.

While the ideal is to clear your mind of all thoughts for the duration of the conversation, this is actually pretty impossible to do. Thoughts will appear on an ongoing basis. However in the same way that we’re able to screen out the other conversations going on around us in a noisy coffee shop or bar to focus on what the person we’re talking to is saying, we can screen out the other thoughts that appear in our head, by setting the intention to focus fully on what the other person is trying to say.

There are a couple of common thoughts that are more distracting than others when we are listening:

  • New ideas: These can be a distraction when we have an idea which might contribute to the conversation, but the person is mid-sentence and has lots more to say. There are two approaches that can be useful here – trust that if the point in our heads is really that important, we will remember it when the right time comes or find a way of quickly noting the idea down so that it is out of our head and we can come back to it later in the conversation.
  • What to say next: Doesn’t it seem counterintuitive that we’re already trying to work out how to respond to someone before we actually know what they are going to say? Allow them to finish their point. Don’t be frightened if there’s a pause once they have finished. You can always indicate that you are processing what they have said during this pause, or check your understanding.

3. Check your understanding

Have you ever had one of those conversations where someone says “I know exactly what you mean…” and then goes on to talk about an experience they have had that is completely different, showing that they have missed the point entirely. What effect does this have on your interaction with this person?  It rarely makes you feel more connected to them.

A really valuable skill in a conversation is to check you understand what they are saying by summarising back to them what you’ve heard, either in their own words or describe what you are seeing as your own interpretation (paraphrasing). This does two things:

  • It demonstrates that you are listening and interested. By telling them what you’ve understood it helps them to know what they might need to spend more time explaining.
  • It gives them a bit of space to listen back to what you have heard them say. It’s very rare that the things that come out of our mouth the first time are clear and well ordered. Often things we’re saying have been in our thoughts for ages, but as we say them and put them into words they evolve and change, new ideas emerge. By summarising what we’re hearing someone say it gives them time to reflect and decide where to take the conversation next.

Checking your understanding removes the need to come up with our own response to what someone is saying while they are saying it – allowing us to listen with a clear mind (see above). As we create a summary of what we have understood from them, our unconscious mind is processing this and delivers insight on what to say or ask next which naturally moves the conversation along.

4. Build rapport

Have you noticed that sometimes you just click with someone? Conversation flows, you find you have loads in common, and you come away from the conversation feeling good and with ideas sparking. This “click” is called being in rapport. With some people, it happens naturally. With others, it can be more difficult.

Being aware of and improving rapport with someone is always useful. If you already have some rapport, then small changes might deepen the connection and increase your understanding of their world, giving you deeper insight. If you’re disagreeing and feeling at odds with the other person, then getting into rapport will help you find common ground.

To improve your rapport with someone, focus on getting into their world.

Our thoughts and feelings and what we show in our physical bodies are very closely connected through a feedback loop. If we are feeling low – we tend to take on a more slumped posture, and if we take on a slumped posture we feel low.

Two people in rapport
Two people in rapport, matching body language.

When we recognise during the conversation what the other person is showing physically (through posture, breathing rate etc), and copy it (in NLP this is called matching and mirroring) we get much more insight into what is going on in their world. Imagine you are an actor trying to get inside the skin of a new character. The more you can understand the world they live in, the better you’ll understand what they’re saying and where it’s coming from. It’s the same with listening – the more you can get into their skin, the more you will understand their world, and the more they will feel listened to.

Rapport building comes with a slight health warning – it needs subtlety, especially if taken at face value. If you copy someone exactly it can be too obvious, feeling forced, even manipulative, which can break the connection completely. A more gentle approach is to start by noticing some small things about how similar you are to them. How does your posture compare to theirs? How similar is your breathing rate or depth? How does your language, the words you are using and your tone compare? Can you make some subtle changes to make yours more similar? Match the position of your arms, or your legs, or try to breathe at the same rate as them. This could help you get a better understanding of their world and help you to connect with them more.

Rapport building can be a fun thing to practice with friends when you’re in conversation with them – play around with it and see what difference it makes to your conversation.

In Conclusion…

There are a wide range of techniques which can be useful in improving your listening skills and we can all improve, resulting in better connection with other people and improving our lives.

However one of the biggest barriers to listening is to be in our heads thinking too much. Trying to apply all these new ideas can put us in our heads, undermining what we are trying to achieve. It results in a mangled interpretation of their artwork, so we lose the understanding and miss the meaning.

Personally, I find that I listen best when I’m interested in the other person and in understanding the world they inhabit. When I approach a conversation with that in mind, many of the things I’ve described above come naturally!  

Listening is a gift you can give anyone and is a very intuitive skill. Be open, interested and trust yourself and your listening skills will naturally improve!

Have some fun with these ideas – and please share what you learn. What insight has this given you about your listening skills? Is there anything you’d like me to expand on and talk about more?

What do you Mean? photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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