How to be an expert listener
Hilary Fraser offers some practical ways for professional communicators – coaches, speakers, facilitators and trainers – to become truly expert listeners.
Out of the four basic communication skills, listening is perhaps the most taken for granted. We learn and practise how to speak with impact, we think hard when we write a document, we take our time to re-read difficult passages in a document. But listening is unlike these skills: we cannot rehearse listening, especially to dialogue that we will co-create, and it’s awkward to keep asking someone to repeat themselves so that we can have another go at understanding them.
The quality of our listening depends on concentration, motivation and making meaning, but because these happen invisibly (for most of us anyway) it is hard to know what the quality of someone’s listening is. What indicates how well we have listened is a combination of how the person listened to feels, as well as what we say in response.
For those of us whose success depends on excellent communication with others, it’s worth taking a few minutes to reflect on what we could do to improve the quality of our listening. Which of these benefits do you think you might gain?
- You could fully grasp the essence of the message someone is trying to tell you.
- You could go beyond the message to the real connection with the other person, and deepen the relationship.
- You could create a perception of yourself as a person who thinks before they speak.
- You exercise your mind and increase your powers of concentration.
- You could create more listenable speaking so your participants/colleagues understand you more easily.
Communication is rampant and fragmented across our noisy 21st century business world. The effect is similar to that of mass advertising – we screen out what we don’t want to hear or what we think is irrelevant. Ironically, while we are tuning out more and more, the need for interpersonal connection at a deep level is ever present. Not only can listening be seen as a gift of time and effort but as Henri Nouwen said, it is the highest form of hospitality.
So how we could become more hospitable listeners, to benefit others as well as ourselves? There are seven skills to practice and six qualities to cultivate.
- Be clear on your own motivations in listening. What are you listening for? To find something out, to build the relationship, to analyse or evaluate, or to support? Your objective determines the way you listen.
- Understand the goals and intentions of the speaker. What we think the speaker is trying to say impacts on how effectively we make meaning from their messages.
- Is it your intention to hear or to respond? We often think we have the solution to a problem we are listening to and cannot resist the urge to jump in with our fix. Your desire to ‘add value’ may have the opposite effect if it suggests that your speaking is more important than their speaking.
- In coaching-type conversations (which could include selling), think about the cycle of Question – Response – Acknowledgement. If you receive a response to your question which is not congruent, the acknowledgement serves to re-focus. (The person asking the question is managing the conversation). If the response is congruent, your acknowledgement demonstrates that you are listening. By the way, skills of ‘active listening’ can be easy to fake e.g. posture, eye contact, nodding and hmm-ing, but it is likely that the speaker will detect the underlying absence.
- Be mindful of where your attention is and be aware if it lapses. If the topic is dull, find an interesting aspect for yourself. If the speaking is dull, focus on the content not the delivery. We speak at around 180 words per minute but our brain can process up to five times faster, so use that spare capacity to think about the ideas in what you are hearing and work hard to resist distractions.
- Exercise your listening muscles, as you would any other part of your body. When you are listening to the garbled verbal equivalent of minestrone soup, try taking notes, listen for structure, identify the themes or chunk information into logical groupings.
- Don’t under-estimate the power of repetition, summary and paraphrase. Not only do these skills help you remember and show you have listened, but they also allow for the speaker to reflect on what they said and to gain the benefits of really listening to themselves.
The qualities of a good listener, according to social scientist Robert Carkhuff, include:
- Respect – if you do not admit the uniqueness and worth of the speaker, this is a big barrier to listening.
- Being genuine – don’t withhold yourself from the interaction even if your role is to share less and listen more.
- Empathy – imagine what the other person thinks and feels.
- Concreteness – don’t let the dialogue become abstract or impersonal ; get specific.
- Confrontation – the magic blend of challenge with support, to engender honesty and awareness.
- Immediacy – clarify and take responsibility for what arises here and now between speaker and listener. Cast light into the conversation, don’t talk in the shadows.
Listening is neither a mystery nor easy to do consistently well. But if you want to make a real difference to those around you, ask yourself: does the world need more speakers or more listeners?
Hilary Fraser helps business people become excellent communicators. Through Fraser Communication and Coaching she offers leadership consulting, executive coaching and group development. She is based in London and spent many years in City-based business development roles.
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I provide workshops and coaching for people development, and I am passionate about leadership and management communication. I facilitate the development and growth of individuals and teams, partnering with an organisation to support behavioural and culture change.
I am an experienced and qualified executive coach, with a post-graduate...