Tom Peters, the well-known consultant, business writer, and speaker referred to as “the Red Bull of management thinkers,” tweets at least once a month about the fact that excellent listening is a strategic differentiator. Peters may have been referring to the art of listening in the workplace, but his observation is true in every realm of life.
Virtually all humans are desperate to be heard and understood. If you don’t count yourself among them, you’re either very lucky (because you’re getting all the listening you need) — or your need was suppressed so strongly at a crucial part of your life that it has gone unconscious and you can’t even tell how much you need to be heard!
Listening is one of those things that you can’t force someone else to do. You may be able to pressure them to display the appearance of listening, but the real thing has to be given volitionally.
How can you tell when someone is listening? Both children and adults can identify the signs of listening as nodding; appropriate smiling or seriousness of expression, depending on the content of the conversation; eye contact; and murmurs of encouragement including anything from un-hunh, mmm-hmm, and ohhhh! to “tell me about that,” “please continue,” or “and then what?”.
On the flip side, do you have any idea how you look when you’re listening? Not to make you feel self-conscious or anything, but most of us have some kind of odd, fixed expression that we believe makes us look interested, neutral, or patient, but actually often reads as bored, phony, or otherwise negative.
Would You Recognize Your “Listening Face”?
I once finished a call with an overly persistent and manipulative sales rep, and noticed that my face hurt. I went to look in the mirror to see what was causing the ache, and saw what I call my “bad face” — a skeptical, pained expression that indicates I’m not buying what I’m hearing — a face that I realized I also tended to use with members of my family when I didn’t like what I was hearing.
This expression was extremely useful when I was a young woman riding the subway and needed to let some weirdo know that I’d already seen that sort of thing before and was too jaded to respond to seeing it now. But what an awful sight for a loved one to see instead of the desired attention and response!
It’s hard to prove you listened unless you respond. You can give verbal acknowledgment, or go all the way to taking action after the conversation is over. It doesn’t take much effort to demonstrate that you got it — just ask! “Let me check my understanding… Do I have this right?”
Listening Opens Dialog
And another amazing thing, which isn’t instinctive, but can be a big relief: You don’t always have to answer completely at the instant of the communication. In most cases, you can go back and keep the conversation going if you think of subsequent responses.
Think of listening as a sort of pay-it-forward strategy. If you model better listening for others, there’s the possibility that they’ll eventually improve their own listening skills — and maybe they’ll be able to hear you better too.
Onward and upward,
More from this series:
- The Listening Post, Part I: Four Crucial Aspects of Understanding
- The Listening Post, Part III: Answers to Some of Your Questions