Listening is much tougher than most people think, and most of us could do it better.
Here are seven elements of listening, all of which we can improve. To listen well, you need to:
Comprehend what’s said.
Many people aren’t clear communicators, so a good listener must untangle the convolutions. And even if the speaker is crystalline, some content may be difficult to grasp. Good listeners know when they must listen intently, and when they can get away with listening "with one ear." And when they don’t understand something important, even if it’s just because their mind wandered, they’re secure enough to ask for a re-explanation: “I didn’t quite get that. Would you mind repeating that?” On hearing such a request, rarely do speakers think, “How dumb.” More likely, they appreciate that someone cared enough to ask for a re-explanation. And usually, the replay is clearer than the original.
Notice important things not said.
For example, on a first date, it can be instructive and revealing if a person talks only about work, not relationships. Are you good at listening for the important unspoken?
Recognize changes in tone and body language.
Good listeners observe baseline behavior: For example, does the person’s face, voice, and body language appear tense? If so, a good listener might then try to appear particularly relaxed and non-confrontive. More important is to note changes from baseline: For example, if the speaker's vocal pitch suddenly rises, what he or she's saying may be emotionally charged. Suddenly crossing his or her arms may indicate defensiveness or dissembling. No such cues are dispositive; they merely alert the good listener. How are you at monitoring the speaker’s face, voice, and body language?
Consciously decide whether to add input.
The good listener is secure enough to rationally decide whether, in any given situation, to add input or to just listen and possibly ask follow-up questions. Don’t let your desire to impress trump what’s best for the interaction and the desired outcome. In the right situation, restraint can be just as compelling. Do you add content to a conversation only when wise?
Accurately determine whether to think ahead.
It’s natural to think ahead to what you’ll say next. That’s fine when you’re good at predicting what the person will be saying. Good listeners who have learned from experience that their predictions are too often inaccurate restrain themselves from thinking, or speaking, ahead.
Think before responding.
After the speaker has finished, a good listener may take some time before responding. Simply take a few seconds to think or say, “Give me a second to think about that.” Doing either makes a speaker feel that what they've put forth merits reflection and that the listener wasn’t just waiting until the speaker finished so that he or she can hold forth.
Know when it’s wise to interrupt.
Interrupting imposes a price: It makes the speaker feel invalidated. Let the person talk. And, as a speaker proceeds, he or she relaxes and is more likely to disclose something he or she might not have planned to earlier. Famed jury consultant Jo Ellen Dimitrius and sports agent Leigh Steinberg have both said that interrupting is the worst thing you can do in a negotiation. I’d temper that by saying that, when dealing with long-winded people or when time is short, some interrupting may be justified, especially when you’re confident that you know what the speaker will say or that enduring the speaker’s additional disquisition will likely yield little value or pleasure.
Perhaps it's now clearer that good listening is more difficult than meets the ear. As you look back on your experience, is there at least one thing you’d like to do differently?