Listening is easily taken for granted. After all, it feels as though we do it almost all the time. Yet, listening is one of the most underrated and underdeveloped skills among professionals—and just about everyone else. Listening is a crucial element in forming relationships, solving problems, making decisions, and performing many other work and life tasks.
Listening is a near-constant element in our work with students, colleagues, parents, friends, and family. It is worth doing well. However, it is easy to compromise listening effectiveness and ignore key elements of listening that could lead to better communication, stronger relationships, and greater influence on others. Such mistakes can be costly. Here are six facets of deep listening worth heeding.
Commit to hearing, not just listening. Hearing represents deeper engagement than just receiving and understanding words. Really hearing someone means seeking meaning, implications, and emotions in and behind what they say. We may think that when others are speaking, we are just receiving their message. However, we are likely confirming, rejecting, or leading the speaker to modify the message as we listen. Communication experts say that more than half of communication is transmitted through body language, not through what is spoken. Consequently, even though we may not be speaking, we are still communicating.
Engage fully. Obviously, we need to put down our phone or anything else that might interrupt or distract us from what is being said. We may think that we are paying full attention, but if we are also doing something else, the message we communicate may be one of less-than-full attention and commitment to the conversation. Equally important, we need to drop our assumptions and set aside our emotions. Perceptions, predictions, and predispositions can color what we hear and how we interpret the message. Only by giving our full attention can we prevent mishearing, misinterpreting, and misfiring in our response.
Listen to learn. One of the most difficult challenges associated with listening is to avoid forming a comment, defense, solution, or other response while the other person is still speaking. Doing these things risks missing key portions of the message or misinterpreting the intent of what is being said. When we commit to learning from what is said, we are likely to absorb information that will better inform and calibrate our response when it is time to provide one. Of course, if we need some time to formulate a response, we can employ a few seconds of silence and allow the message to settle.
Repetition is a signal. It is not unusual for people to repeat themselves when reporting an experience, sharing a message, or recounting a conversation. Repetition can be an indication of something important. Sometimes repetition is intended to emphasize something emotional about the message. At other times, repetition is an indication that the speaker is not feeling heard or is feeling that we do not fully understand the implications of what is being said. When we notice repetition, it is worth noting and asking if the speaker wants to say more about that aspect of the message.
Silence is powerful. Accomplished interviewers and skilled interrogators understand the power of silence. Silence, even for a few seconds, can have a powerful effect on conversations. Silence can be an invitation to continue speaking. It can imply and “give voice,” so to speak, for deep emotion. Silence can even communicate skepticism and doubt. Regardless, most people feel a powerful urge to fill gaps of silence. When we resist the urge to interrupt and are willing to sit quietly, we can often learn far more important information than if we choose to ask an immediate question or offer an immediate response.
Confirm what is said. The best way to know if we have accurately heard and interpreted what was said is to confirm it with the speaker. Of course, as we confirm, we are also assuring the speaker that we have been listening. Confirmation can take multiple forms. We can confirm what we heard by repeating what was said (“I heard you say…”). We can also summarize what we heard to confirm our understanding of the full message (“In summary, it sounds as though…”). Or we can interpret what we hear to confirm themes and implications (“Would it be correct to interpret what you are saying as…”).
Listening is one of the most powerful ways to communicate respect. We don’t always have to have answers or guidance to offer. Often, just being willing to listen can make a crucial difference. Practice these six strategies, and you may be amazed at the impact.