How To Be A Better Listener

alex atkins bookshelf cultureThere was a time when people actually spoke to one another, face to face. It was a very natural give and take: one person talked, while another listened. Sadly, with the advent of digital devices and the internet, the norm, particularly those of Generation Y (Millennials) and Generation Z (Boomlets), is that people text or email one another. And if you see two young people talking, you will note that they are usually distracted, not maintaining eye contact, glancing down at their smartphones. Being a good listener, however, is an important skill to cultivate for one’s professional and personal life. As one researcher noted, “The effectiveness of the spoken word hinges not so much on how people talk as on how they listen.” Here are tips to becoming a better listener from communication experts:

Sunny Gold, in an article for Scientific American, shares these insights:
1. Check your assumptions: Cultivate genuine interest about the other person’s situation or perspective. Try asking “so you mean…” or “so you’re thinking that…”
2. Be curious: Try to learn more and get fuller context. Ask open-ended questions like “can you say more about…” or “Can you elaborate further to help me understand?”
3. Suspend judgment: Don’t become so entrenched in your own beliefs and opinions that you close down and do not listen. Let the other person talk, without interrupting or asserting your own beliefs or opinions. Even if you disagree on some points, try to find shared ground or goals, which makes it easier to empathize, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
4. Know when to reschedule: Good listening requires humility and curiosity, neither of which can be faked. If you are not in the right frame of mind, it is better to say “‘I understand that this is really important to you, and I want to give you my full, undivided attention. Can we talk later in the day/week?”

In a fascinating article titled “How One Simple Change Can Make You a Better Listener” for Fast Company, Art Markman highlights the research of Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist at the University of Maryland.  Kruglanski found that there are two motivational mindsets in a conversation: a thinking mindset and a doing mindset. An individual is in the thinking mindset when he or she is listening. They are actively learning and taking in information. When an individual starts thinking about what to say or how to solve a problem, he or she enters the doing mindset. And herein lies the real problem of a bad listener: when you start focusing on what to say, you miss what the other person is saying, and more importantly, reading the subtle nonverbal cues that are also an important part of the message. Kruglanski believes the best way to become a better listener is to stop focusing on what you want to say next. He suggests adopting the habit of repeating back what someone has said, ensuring that you fully understand the message, before sharing your thoughts.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Sarah Carmichael shares the insights of Christine Riordan, a professor of management at the University of Kentucky. According to Riordan, good listening begins with actually caring about what other people have to say. Listening with empathy can be broken down into three distinct behaviors: (1) taking in the information, including the verbal and nonverbal cues; (2) processing the information, understanding what the other person is saying; and (3) responding to the information, by nodding, repeating, or a verbal acknowledgment. To become a better listener it is important to focus on the first two behaviors. One impediment to good listening is when the listener is distracted by his or her own emotions evoked by something that another person said. Harvard professors Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stevens elaborate: “If we make up our minds to seek out the ideas that might prove us wrong, as well as those that might prove us right, we are less in danger of missing what people have to say.” Nichols and Stevens note that the basic problem of listening is that we think (neurons firing 200 times per second) faster than we can talk (about 125 words per minute). In other words, it is easy for the brain to get distracted.

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