A Guide to Become a Better Listener
“I never made a dime — talking.” — Sebastian Spering Kresge (Walgreens founder)
You have worked so hard to get to the top. You got there by doing the work and becoming an expert at what you do. You have probably made your fair share of mistakes, but you ultimately succeeded. You have something to say. You deserve to tell others about your experiences and what you have learned along the way.
There is only one problem: No one cares.
Yes, you read this correctly: No one cares.
And here’s why. Those were your experiences and they have little to do with others’ experiences. What has made you learn and grow is not necessarily what makes another person learn and grow. Others are learning different things at different times. And even though they might be younger or older, they know a thing or two as well. They can get tired of hearing how you did it. They want to know how you can move forward together. And in order to find out how to best do that, you need to listen.
Listening is not easy. It’s not automatic. It takes attention.
Distractions are everywhere, though. People, news, internet, the list goes on. Too many things to do in too little time. And yet without listening there is no chance of connecting and no chance of creating something together that will work better for all involved.
Here are three exercises to become a better listener:
1. Ask questions you don’t know the answer to
In sales training 101 we are taught to get the customer to say yes as many times as possible. The more yeses you get, the closer you are to a sale. Have you ever walked into a car dealership? Then you have experienced this tactic firsthand. The problem is this kind of questioning technique doesn’t lead to problem solving. It doesn’t allow the person being asked to think. Closed-ended questions just get you to a yes or a no.
But people think a lot and they want to be heard. More than almost anything, people want to be heard. It means they matter. So, a yes or no question won’t suffice. Questions to elicit thought and contemplation start with WHAT. Rather than asking: “Have you had the review with Joe Smith yet?” you might want to ask: “What is the status of the review process?” Rather than asking, “Is the sales report complete?” try, “What is the next step to get the sales report completed?”
If you already know the answer to the question there is no point in asking. Therefore, ask questions you don’t know the answer to. Be curious. Come from a place of discovery. You don’t know yet, but you would like to learn. Stop yourself from jumping in and fixing the other’s problem.
2. Practice (the two-minute challenge!)
When I first became a coach we were challenged by doing the following exercise. Identify someone you want to practice with — your child, your spouse, a sibling, a friend. Ask a simple question and listen to the answer. Don’t say anything for two minutes! That’s a long time to not say anything. But the challenge is not only to be quiet, but to actually hear what the other is saying. Can you tune out the conversation that is taking place in your head at the same time? Can you stop thinking that you still need to go to the store on the way home, or that you can’t forget to call your boss? Can you silence the voice in your head long enough to listen to the other for two minutes? Just two minutes? I dare you. It is harder than you might think.
I remember I first tried this when I was driving my kids to school. It didn’t take long until my mind drifted. But I kept at it. And I want to encourage you to keep at it as well. It’s like a muscle you can train. You can do it, but you need to practice. When I first took on coaching clients, my own agenda kept creeping into my head. Now I can pay attention for an entire hour and longer without drifting off.
3. Listen to connect, not to reject or judge
You’ll notice that the more successful you are at tuning out all the other voices in your head telling you what you should be spending your time on, the more you hear the other person. However, you might not like what you are hearing. You might not agree with their point of view. Likewise you might be quick to judge the other person to be right or wrong. But who is to say what’s right or wrong? Can you really be the judge of that?
Let’s challenge that line of thinking. Instead, listen to connect rather than reject or judge. How do you do that? By pretending that you are walking in that person’s shoes. Pretend you are him. Pretend you have the same challenges and the same fears. Pretend you have the same problems to solve. Rather than jumping in to solve that person’s problems, though, listen to how he is thinking about solving the problems. What solution is he contemplating? What are you not understanding yet that brings him to his conclusion? What piece are you missing?
This empathetic approach will allow you to connect on a much deeper level. At this level trust is formed. People who listen well are trusted more.
To increase your attention span, engage in a meditative practice. Journal writing works well. So does traditional meditation and there are many ways to engage in it besides the obvious — yoga, mindfulness walking, painting, even ironing. Incorporate as many meditative practices into your day as possible. Ultimately, you want to be mindful about anything you do. From brushing your teeth to cooking your meals, to engaging with your team. This introspective work is essential to learning how to listen well and ultimately to hear what is being said.
If you find no one is listening to you, give me a call. Reach out by sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear how your listening muscle is coming along.
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