So we all know, or should know, that one of the keys to a successful relationship on any level is to be a good listener. Whether we are talking about sales, family, spouse or friends our ability to truly hear what the other is saying is a critical component for a healthy relationship. For someone like me who likes to take stock of where they are in the hierarchy of things this begs the question… How do we know how good a listener we are? I mean let’s face it I’m fairly sure that we all believe we are good listeners. I know that if you ask me if I am a good listener I will tell you emphatically yes, yes I am. If, however, you were to ask my ex wife the same question you might get an exceedingly different answer to that question. So is there a way for us to have an unbiased measure of how well we listen? Can we ask friends and family? Will they give us the truth? Can we have a conversation with someone third party and have them assess our listening skills? This last one seems unlikely to provide good feedback. I mean how many of you fart? How many of you fart when you know someone is listening? Never mind on that first date.
When we know we are being measured we tend to perform at our best therefore losing the objectivity of the assessment. So if we can acknowledge the importance of listening and we think we are in fact good listeners yet we have been told on occasion that we are not, how do we move forward? It would be simple to blame the assessment on a disgruntled ex, and while it may be partially the case, there is likely also at least a glimmer of truth to the allegation. So if we know that there may be a bias in the feedback yet we still are uncertain that we are a good listener what can we do to measure our listening ability in order to learn and grow. For my money it is less about hearing the words that someone is speaking and more about how ‘present’ you are with them at that moment in time. As someone who surely would have been diagnosed with ADHD in my youth, remaining present and focused is something that I definitely struggle with. Over the years I have come up with a few tools that I employ in order to improve the practice of presence. It is important to realize that it is just that, a practice. Some days you will do well, others you will struggle. Here are a few things that I have come up with to assist.
- If you cannot be present, disengage!
Let’s face it, there are times when we have other priorities on our mind, other things that we need to do or we simply do not care about what the other person is saying. In an effort to be polite we pretend to be present with the other party but really all we want to do is get the hell out of there. If this is the case then you are better off simply explaining the situation up front, cutting the conversation short or postponing it til a time when you truly can be present. If you are engaged in a conversation where all you can think is “Could you please shut the fuck up I have no interest in what you are saying.” You are not only wasting your time but you are wasting theirs as well.
- Repeat what they are saying in your own words to clarify that you understand what they are saying.
In a business context I often ask people to repeat what I’ve told them. I don’t do it to belittle but to ensure what I think I said and what they actually heard are the same thing. So many times this is not the case.
- Visualize what they are telling you. Use their words to paint a mental image.
I am a much more visual person and when I can paint a mental image of what someone is telling me then it tends to stick better. Enabling this into a daily practice also helps to ensure you are really listening.
- Make eye contact
Nothing more engaging than making full eye contact with the person you are conversing with.
- Pretend you are writing an essay on what it is they are saying. What if you had to describe the scene in detail? What are the nuances of their facial features? What does the tone of their voice tell you? What do you see in their eyes?
This practice will ensure that you listen, not only with your ears but also your other senses as well.
- If conversing with an intimate partner or even close friend practice speaking only with your eyes. Take turns with a simple message and see if your partner can ‘listen’ to your eyes. This can be a very powerful exercise, especially with an intimate partner. Be forewarned that depending on the environment, this one can often lead to one listening with lips, tongues and hands. Reading your partners eyes can be an incredibly connecting exercise.
All of this is relatively easy in theory, and great if you just whip out this article before you start any conversation. Unfortunately the sad reality is that even the most well intentioned of us will forget this checklist most of the time. We need to ensure that this becomes a habit. That it becomes something so ingrained in our subconscious that we do not have to think about it and it simply happens automatically. In other words we become unconsciously competent at listening.
So this then comes back to the question how to effectively build a habit. Many years ago researchers at MIT identified what has been coined ‘The Habit Loop’. The habit loop consists of A Cue, A Routine (the habit), and a Reward. Charles Duhigg wrote an excellent book called The Power of Habit that explores this in detail if you want to read more on the habit loop. For simplicity sake let’s just say that The cue is ‘thing’ that triggers the behavior (Routine) and the Reward is any kind of satisfaction that is derived from performing the Routine. Therefore if we want to change our listening routines we are best to find the Cues that lead us astray and reprogramming them with better Routines.
It all begins with awareness. Once we become aware of the things that distract us from listening well, we can replace them with a practice from the list above. So while I am not certain I have answered the question on how we ‘score’ our listening abilities I think that we have a number of practices that we can incorporate into our conversations. The next time you are in a conversation with someone choose one of the practices from above and try it on for size. Let me know if it works for you or better yet share something that isn’t listed that works well for you.