Chances are you think you are a good listener. Chances are greater there’s somebody in your life who will disagree. If both of these statements are true, congratulations! You’re pretty much like everybody else on the planet.
The fact is, none of is born with good listening skills. We have to learn them. Unfortunately, most of us assume that the ability to listen keenly and with insight is innate, so we fail to develop our abilities. As a result, we keep making the same basic mistakes over and over. How to correct them?
Here are five easy steps you can take, indeed must take, if you want to not only hear, but understand what people are saying:
1) Check Your Ego At The Door
Years ago I was speaking at a meeting in Minneapolis. In the middle of winter! There were two coat racks bordering each side of the door to the conference room. One was filled with coats, and next to it was a sign that read, “check your coat here.” The other was empty. Next to the empty coat rack was a sign that read, “check your ego here.”
The greatest risk when listening to someone is that we might hear something that goes against our own pre-conceptions. This might be information that challenges a pet theory or practice. It might be information that is critical of us or something we have done. Most of us find some way of ignoring or discounting this kind of message. When we do this, though, we defeat one of the primary purposes of listening, which is to learn something new. The solution, though it may be difficult, is to resolve to put our egos aside and give the speaker a fair hearing. We can always be critical later. In the meantime, we might learn something.
2)Check Your Agenda Next to the Ego.
The main reason people don’t hear the person they’re supposed to be listening to is that they’re too busy thinking about what they’re going to say next. This problem only gets worse when we’ve set an agenda for the conversation ahead of time. Think about how often you’ve been approached by a spouse or partner with a problem. Has it ever been the case that, while they’re busy describing the problem, your mind is occupied with dreaming up solution? If you’re in sales, how often do you find yourself more focused on how you want your prospect to react than how they really are reacting?
There are many times in business and in life where we want to use what I call “strategic listening.” “Strategic Listening” is any situation where you must monitor the speaker’s message for specific and necessary information. The challenge in these circumstances is to stay open to unexpected messages. The solution is to try not to ‘listen ahead.’ When listening, let them set the agenda. Yours can come later.
We’ve all seen the guy who says through his behavior, “but enough about me. Why don’t you talk about me for a while!” Don’t be that guy. I’ll only add that the best way to draw somebody out is by responding with silence. Trust me, they’ll fill in the spaces of the conversation.
4)Listen Not Only To What They Say, But Also To What They Want You To Do.
Every message has two components: the ‘direct’ message, and the ‘meta’ message. To put it more simply, there’s what they say, and there’s what they want you to do about it. The ‘meta’ portion of the message is conveyed through context and non-verbal cues.
Imagine that you and I are standing beneath a bus stop, and I say to you “lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it?” You can easily see that depending on my tone of voice, body language, and external context, that simple sentence could take on a lot of different meanings. If it’s raining out and I say it sarcastically, it’s a joke. If it’s raining and I say it with concern in my voice, and while holding out an umbrella, I’m offering to help keep you dry. If the weather’s fine, but I look lonely and dejected while saying it, perhaps I’m inviting you to converse with me so I feel less lonely. If you’re the one who looks dejected, perhaps I’m trying to cheer you up.
What these examples have in common is that in each of them there is an implicit call to action. When I say to listen to what is not said, I mean pay attention to that action component. Always ask yourself two questions: what did they say, and what do they want me to do?
Listening is a two-step process. It’s fundamental components are understanding and action. Once you’ve figured out what a person wants you to do, respond to it. Unless you respond to both the message’s meaning and its implied action, you aren’t really listening.