3 Ways to Be a Better Listener

Whenever I have a phone conversation with Maddie (not her real name), I can always tell when she is “multitasking.” You know how it sounds–she makes the prerequisite “Um hmm” noises at the appropriate times, but it quickly becomes obvious when she is not fully engaged. Likewise, if a co-worker starts talking to me while I’m focused on another task, I find myself wondering, after he or she walks out, what was actually discussed. Paying attention can be costly!

Relationships are the foundation of both your work and personal life–relationships with colleagues, customers, direct reports, family, and friends. Your ability to listen and really hear what others are saying is the lifeblood of those relationships, and may be the defining reason for why your employees stay loyal. Yet we live in an age of distraction. Thanks to our five senses, we are surrounded by a kaleidoscope of colorful, noisy, urgent, sometimes even smelly intrusions that cry for our attention. These distractions threaten to sabotage the very relationships we must maintain in order to be productive, happy, and successful. What does it take to be the kind of listener who encourages rather than shuts down relationships? Here are 3 ways to be a better listener:

1. Narrow your focus. I know it’s hard and you have a million things you “should” be doing, but stop looking at your phone, computer, or paperwork, and focus on the person in front of you. Be wholehearted. You didn’t get where you are by going half-heartedly after your goals. Be as focused and wholehearted in your conversation with this person as you are in your other pursuits. You might be surprised at how rewarding a conversation can be and how little time it eats up when you’re fully involved.

2. Mirror what the other person is saying. Mirroring means to repeat a person’s words back to him. Betty Liu, a TV anchor, columnist, and expert interviewer, has found that most people just want you to listen to them, and mirroring accomplishes this. Although this may sound easy, it can make you feel silly and actually takes practice! But its benefits are proven. Not only does this technique also prevent you from thinking ahead to what you’re going to say next, but it also does something wonderful to the other person’s brain. A therapist friend recently shared with me the physiological science behind mirroring, particularly when a verbal exchange is emotionally charged.

In normal conversations, we tend to respond to another’s statement by either “fixing” him, which causes him to feel attacked, or going silent so we don’t say something we might regret, which results in feelings of rejection and abandonment. In either scenario, the person tends to separate himself from these bad feelings and fails to process them. But brain studies have shown that when we kindly mirror another person’s words, he feels heard, and his brain is literally bathed in peaceful, calming chemicals that allow him to integrate and process his emotions.

Let’s say that Mark has just said to you, “Your door always seems to be closed when I need to get your input.” Here are three ways you could respond:

FIXER: “Well, if you would come when I’m not on the phone, or wait until I’m off, then we could talk.”
SILENCER: “I’m sorry, but I can’t deal with this right now.”
MIRRORER: “You feel that I’m unavailable when you need my help?”

3. Ask questions. It’s not enough to simply restate what the other person is saying. To demonstrate that you are truly listening after initially mirroring, says Betty Liu, you must follow through by asking questions. If you’re truly engaged in the conversation, you’ll want to learn more about what the person just said. Asking questions shows you care enough about the person to understand him or her. It may lead to your making a suggestion, agreeing to disagree, or setting a boundary–but the end result, if kindness prevails, is that the person feels heard and valued.

Isn’t that the real point of relationships? Whether in business or personal life, we exchange value when we incorporate these 3 ways to be a better listener. Conversations can serve various purposes, but gathering information, getting your point across, influencing, or agreeing on a plan of action–all these actions are worthless unless both parties benefit from the exchange.

Want to know how to become your employees’ favorite boss? Click here.

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