Most people like to think what they have to say is important. If you or I make the effort to share thoughts, feelings, or knowledge, then we want to believe the intended recipient is listening. But honestly, many people are too distracted to really take it all in when someone else is doing the talking. What's worse is that so many just watch mouths move, waiting for the chance to chime in.
Great leaders understand the value of active listening and get the most benefit from what others have to share. They understand that if you want to be heard and understood, the first step is learning how to listen yourself. The following are actions shared by those who truly know how to listen. Integrate them into your conversational behavior and you might be surprised what you learn.
1. Be present. Being "in the moment" is not just for yoga or Grateful Dead concerts. If you are going to take in what someone is saying, you have to truly focus your mental awareness on the person. Push distractions aside. Give a person the gift of your attention. Put down the smartphone, turn off your computer screen, put down the book or magazine, and look at him or her with a neutral or pleasant expression. Most people are so accustomed to having half of someone else's focus at any given moment that this gesture alone will make them feel important and it will allow you to actually hear what they are saying.
2. Turn down the inner voice. Internal analysis of any conversation is unavoidable and necessary, but often it's at the expense of objectivity. That voice can actually take over in your brain to the point at which you are no longer listening to the person talking and instead simply listening to the diatribe in your head. There is plenty of time after a conversation to assess the value of what you heard, but first you have to hear it. One technique for quieting the inner voice is simple note taking. Writing down even key words or short phrases will force you to absorb the information coming in. Then you can process it on your own outside the presence of the speaker. As an added benefit, you'll have a more accurate representation of what was actually said for later discussion.
3. Hold up a mirror. This is a technique many psychologists and counselors recommend to help alleviate conflict. When the opportunity arises, speak up and describe for the person what you have just heard him or her say. It is OK to rephrase in your own words. Be sure to end with a request for confirmation: "So what you're most concerned about is that the new hires lack training. Is that accurate?" The speaker then knows you are paying attention and fully engaged.
4. Ask for clarification. During a conversation, hunt for areas of interest where you might further inquire. Without derailing his or her train of thought, ask the speaker to expand and clarify: "What do you mean by 'interesting?'" or "Why do you think that is so important?" The speaker will appreciate the interaction, and you will gain better understanding of the person's perspective as well as your own perception of the information.
5. Establish follow-up. At the end of any conversation, discuss and determine if there are action steps required. This check-in will alert speakers to your actual concern for what they said, and help them assess their own relevancy to your needs. Express appreciation for their sharing, and let them know what you found to be valuable from the conversation. Making them feel heard increases the odds they'll truly listen to you when you have something to say you believe is important.
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