We all know bad listeners.
It could be that friend who looks at you with the glazed eyes of a goldfish while you're speaking and continuously cuts you off mid sentence.
Or the colleague at work who always says “Feel free to chat” but spends the whole time talking about their problems when you do finally grab a coffee.
These experiences are annoying as hell – because there’s nothing that gets people’s backs’ up quite like not being listened to.
But the truth is that we’re often guilty of doing exactly the same things.
In fact, many of us are equally bad listeners as these annoying people - we’re just not aware of it.
In fact, studies have shown that the average person can only remember 50% of what they’ve heard straight after they’ve heard it.
Another study has shown that only 10% of the initial message communicated is retained after 3 days.
The reason for these shocking stats is that most of us think of listening as a passive process that requires no effort.
But listening isn’t the same thing as hearing – it’s an active process and a skill that needs to be practiced and refined.
The Skill of Listening
Communication is like throwing and catching a ball.
You need to be alert to receive information through reading and listening in the same way you need to be alert to receive a pass on a football pitch.
Both require focus and skill.
But why should we care about improving our listening skills?
And aren’t there better things we should be spending our time on?
Well, while the benefits of improving these skills may not be easily quantified, listening better will improve every area of your life.
And I’m not the only one saying this – the importance of listening has been emphasised since ancient times. The Greek philosopher Diogenes once said, “We have two ears and one tongue so to listen more and talk less”
It’s also a common misconception that as we progress in our careers, we shift from listening and taking orders to speaking and giving them to others.
But if you listen to any successful CEO or leader they’ll say that asking questions and listening are the key to them doing their job well.
OK, so listening is important.
But is it a skill that you can learn?
Well, many people assume that good listeners have an intrinsic talent and assume that it’s a gift that can't be learned or improved.
But while it may come easier to some people, the reality is that listening skills can be developed with deliberate effort and practice.
Here are three tips to improve your listening skills and set you on the path to mastery.
1) Avoid Common Blocks to Listening
There are three main blocks to listening that most people fall victim to:
A) Daydreaming and Failing to Listen
It’s very easy to lose focus when others are speaking if their tone of voice is dull or you’re not interested in what they’re talking about.
And even when someone is speaking well, their words can trigger thoughts that set your mind wandering.
To combat this, when you find yourself drifting off, notice what’s happening and come gently back to listening again.
If your related thought was useful, jot it down in a notebook and remind yourself to pick it up later.
Don’t give yourself a hard time for losing concentration – accept it and come back to listening again.
B) Judging What the Other Person is Saying
We filter so much of what people say through judgement and while this is something that happens naturally, it gets in the way of good listening.
Maybe a friend tells you about a mistake they made at work and you think to yourself that you’d never have made the same one.
Then as they continue to speak, you filter what they're saying with this judgement and other opinions about them.
And this is something that tends to happen very subtly without you even noticing.
Judgement often takes the form of expressions of necessity – you must, you have to, you should have – or evaluations of whether something’s good or bad so
learn to watch for these signs both in yourself and others.
And when these thoughts come up, notice them and suspend judgement until after you’ve finished listening to what the other person has said.
C) Predicting What The Other Person is Saying
Another bad habit is trying to predict what the person you’re listening to is going to say before they’ve said it. This is something we do all the time with people we know well, like our close friends and family.
The problem is that this blocks listening because we colour everything they say through our view of their previous words and actions.
So if your friend complains a lot and comes to you with something to discuss, you assume it’s a problem, think to yourself “Here we go again” and fail to listen.
As with judgement, it’s important to try and stop the inner predictor, who’s constantly trying to forecast what other people are about to say.
If you’re having trouble, try imagining that you’ve never spoken to this person before while you’re listening to them. Then after they’ve finished you can bring your own knowledge and experience with them into play and make your judgement.
2) Don’t Rehearse What You’re Going to Say
We’re all familiar with the problem of trying to rehearse our own piece while someone else is speaking.
You can notice when others are doing it because they tend to increase their rate of non verbal mms and uh-huhs to try and take over the conversation.
There are 3 behaviours I’d recommend for developing this habit of focusing what you’re listening to, without preparing an answer.
A) Notice how often you’re thinking about what to say next
The first is noticing, which I keep coming back to but that’s because it’s the most important part of the process.
To start with, simply notice how often you’re thinking about what to say when it’s your turn.
If you do this often enough, you’ll be able to massively improve the quality of the communication you have with others.
B) Reflect back to the person
During a conversation, use a reflecting phrase like “you said X” or you mentioned Y” to repeat your interpretation of the other person's ideas.
Not only does this help you to grasp what they’re saying, it also shows them you’re listening, which will improve the quality of the conversation.
The biggest challenge here is not interrupting, which takes us onto the next point - getting comfortable with pauses.
C) Get comfortable with pauses
Very often someone might pause while they’re talking but that doesn’t always mean they’ve finished.
A big reason we prepare answers while the other person is speaking is because we don’t feel comfortable dealing with silence.
We somehow think that this makes it awkward, when what it really does is give us the space to think and respond properly to what they’ve said.
We feel that we have to rush to keep the conversation going, yet we’ve all experienced great conversations where there are plenty of pauses.
In fact these are the types of conversations where people are really listening to each other.
3) Actively engage with what you’re listening to
When others are speaking for extended periods, it can be hard to process everything they're saying.
This is something many of us struggle with a lot at meetings and conferences.
After all, how much of what gets said in these situations actually gets processed?
If people remember 10% of a message after 3 days, imagine how low it is when there's a lack of personal interest and you'd rather be somewhere else.
A) Create interest and be prepared
The first thing is to try and cultivate some sort of interest in what’s being said.
If you’re in a meeting, the chances are you’re there for a reason, so remind yourself why it’s important that you listen. Even if it’s irrelevant see it as a training exercise for your listening skills.
If you’re going to a conference, look up the speakers and choose the talks you want to go to, so that you’re more likely to be interested in what’s being discussed.
I’ve always found that a little bit of preparation on this front goes a long way.
B) Take Good Notes
To engage with what you’re listening to, I’d recommend note taking.
Listening is a more difficult process than reading because you can’t go back and review what the speaker has said once they’ve said it, unless the talk has been recorded.
Generally, anything that makes the process more active will increase the quality of your listening and note taking is a great way of doing this.
I like to jot down the key ideas in my own short hand and reserve my own commentary until after the speech.
The focus should be on capturing the key points from the talk, not writing what they’ve said verbatim. And ideally, save your opinions and judgements for after they've finished speaking.
Because of our ability to record sound and video, the premium on careful listening has fallen. A few centuries ago, if you didn’t listen when someone was speaking, you lost the message.
Add to this that we’re living in a world full of noise and you can see how the task of listening well is becoming more and more difficult.
But listening is an art we should all take the effort to improve because we spend so much time doing it.
It’s the key to building high quality relationships with others – both professionally and personally.
And the good news is that we have loads of opportunities to do this every single day – in every conversation we have.