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Listening Skills and How to Develop Them

Listening Skills and How to Develop Them

A FORMER COLLEAGUE ENJOYED TELLING THE STORY about the guy sitting next to him on a business flight who sold courses on how to listen. All during the flight, the listening huckster talked nonstop about the need to listen. His tongue never stopped wagging and my colleague never got a word in edgewise.

But let’s not come down too hard on that lunkheaded peddler of listening skills who failed to practice what he preached. Besides, many of us blabbermouths can identify with the salesman.

A cardinal rule of how to listen–don’t interrupt

We’ve all experienced acting on an overpowering impulse to interrupt someone in mid-sentence to either to give advice or talk about how we feel about the subject. Extreme examples of this have been observed during political debates where candidates blurted, “Let me finish,” or, “I let you speak now it’s my turn.”

When you jump into a conversation before a job interviewer or boss has finished a sentence, they’ll think you’re either rude or eager to wrap-up the conversation and move on.

The same holds true when you’re too quick to respond to a question. Listeners will think you’re giving canned answers. In both instances, you would come across as the stereotypical smarmy salesperson or overanxious job candidate.

On one hand, you need to need to learn how to listen if you want people to like you, buy from you, or hire you. On the other, it’s an unfortunate fact that most of you lack basic listening skills. Research shows the average person’s listening efficiency is only about twenty-five percent. So nobody as to tell you how hard it is to listen to someone drone on and on without wanting to be a buttinsky.

But you must resist the inclination to want to solve a problem, fix a situation, or give advice until your job interviewer or customer has fully expressed herself.

Just recall your own experiences. Haven’t you recoiled when someone interrupted you saying, “Think you’ve got problems? Listen to what happened to me!” Or the times when someone cuts in with, “Oh, I had a similar experience,” and went on to dominate what you hoped would be a two-way conversation.

Why you need to let people finish what they’re saying

When you interrupt someone in mid-sentence, you’ve made yourself the focus of the conversation. You’re letting the speaker know that you have something more important to say. That’s disrespectful. Besides, interrupting someone prevents you from getting information you need while alienating you from the speaker.

What a speaker says first is often just the tip of that person’s verbal iceberg. There’s so much more underneath the surface that will come up only if you shut up. A Jewish spiritual writer nailed it when he said, “Speech reveals to the heavens the speaker’s concealed and hidden thought.”

So you need to give speakers all the space they to finish what they have to say. Don’t fill-in that space for speakers. You risk shutting them down by interrupting.

Five listening tips guaranteed to boost your listening skills

  1. WAIT A BEAT BEFORE YOU SPEAK. When you sense the speaker has finished, wait a beat-about a second-to make sure the speaker has finished before you jump in. You can always ask, “Is there anything more about the situation you’d like to talk about?” This question helps make sure all of your speaker’s words have been wrung out of him before you jump in.
  2. USE EMPHATIC LISTENING. Know what you’re listening for- the speaker’s needs and feelings-before jumping into the conversation. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another is called “empathy.” That’s why effective listening is also called “emphatic listening” or “active listening.”

Whichever label you’d care to slap on it, the main ingredient of emphatic listening is to be present. The moment you interrupt, you’re not being present or emphatic to the problem of a hiring manager, sales prospect, your boss, or a friend in need who is pouring out her heart to you. When you listen to someone, you build a bond with that person.

A Chinese philosopher knew all about emphatic listening even two thousand years ago when he wrote, “The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. But the hearing of the understanding is another.”

Chuang-Tzu called this “the hearing of the spirit” which involves listening with your whole being: your ears and eyes, heart and soul. Then you’re able to grasp what a person says beyond “what can be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.”

Listening with your whole being means to focus your full attention on your speaker’s thoughts that are being expressed in words.

Empathetic listening also involves using your intuition-the sixth sense-while listening for a speaker’s needs and what is required to solve a problem or to feel better about something.

  1. DON’T THINK AHEAD. You prevent yourself from listening fully by contemplating how to solve a speaker’s problem while she’s speaking. The A rule of thumb is to listen now, solve later.
  2. TAKE NOTES. Dante, the Italian poet and philosopher, also knew a thing or two about listening when he wrote, “He listens well who takes notes.” You’ll focus yourself by taking notes in a staff meeting or during a telephone interview. However, when job candidates have asked if it’s okay to take notes during a job interview, my answer has always been an emphatic “no.” Taking notes would most likely distract and annoy prospective employers.
  3. PARAPHRASE. In order to focus your listening attention on what your speaker is wanting, paraphrase what you understood to be the problem. For example, if you need clarification say, “would you mind talking more about that?” If you want the speaker to know you’ve understood and listened, say, “As I understand the issue… ” and give a short summary about what you just heard.

Paraphrasing or rewording confirms to someone that you received his message and understood it.

You can also paraphrase by asking questions: “Are you concerned about such and such?’ Or, “Would you like me to give you my thoughts on this?” If your listener says, “yes” to the last question, you know he eagerly awaits your opinion, your empathy, or your plan to solve a problem. People will appreciate your reflecting back to them because it indicates they’ve been heard and understood.

Whenever you reflect or paraphrase, use a positive tone of voice so as not to give the impression you’re criticizing. Don’t tell them what they’ve just said. Phrase it in the form of a question: “Do I understand correctly that your issue in dealing with the project is such and such?” We’re asking them if they’ve been understood-not telling them that we have understood.

Rewording also gives the speaker a chance to think about what he’s just said. This might invite more conversation between both of you and further clarify the speaker’s problem that you’d love to help solve.

Paraphrasing gives you two benefits- You save time. And you’re saved from being misunderstood.

But try not to apply the process to your ends. Sincerely want to connect with the person for the purpose of helping after they’ve been heard.

A major block to listening and how to remove it

You’re prevented from listening when a conversation is causing emotional distress. Then you have too much going on internally to allow listening to happen.

You can clear up your head by applying some short-term first aid. Acknowledge your own discomfort or inner turmoil and give yourself permission to listen to the conversation-just for now. You’ll experience a sense of relief. This enables you to listen just for now and worry later.

How to tell when you’re listening well

You’ll notice a couple of signs. You’ll sense relief in yourself. And you’ll notice some relief in the speaker as well.

When you practice the five listening skills during everyday conversation, you’ll automatically achieve a major impact at job interviews and in your relationships with others.