Effective listening is more important than talking if you want to be truly influential when you communicate.
If you want your talking to be more powerful, the absolute best place to start is with listening. Effective listening.
Think for a moment about what happens when you don’t listen well.
When your listening is not effective, you are hearing things but you are also missing important signals.
And that makes your talking less effective. You may have experienced when something you thought would resonate doesn’t. Or when it outright backfires.
When your listening is not effective, you end up missing important facts.
You might miss something obvious or something subtle. Either way, you end up less credible because you don’t have a good enough handle on things.
When your listening is not effective, and not contemplative enough, you can lose sight of the big picture. Or you might not account for certain perspectives from key people.
That the sort of thing that makes your talking less effective.
You know, like when you’re talking but you’re also carrying on an inner dialog that is painfully wishing to backtrack. When you really wish you could get a “do over.”
If you want to talk effectively, you need to be able to listen effectively. That’s the secret to minimizing those pains and maximizing your opportunities.
Because once you are armed with more and better information, and once you have done a better job at understanding different people’s challenges and perspectives, and once you get help from more people, you will wield much greater influence.
You will know much better what to say, how to say it, when to say it, and where to say it.
Here’s why this works.
Secrets are hiding in plain sight
People want to tell you things that you need to know in order to influence them. They really do.
They would love to tell you their hopes and dreams, their biggest challenges, and their unique perspective on things.
It’s just that nobody ever asks. Or if they do, they don’t really pay attention to the answers.
People love to talk about themselves and their concerns. If you listen and pay careful attention, you will find tons of things hiding in plain sight.
When you actively listen you can more accurately hear what the other person is saying. Many things will be explicitly stated. It can be as simple as that. They just need an opening to be heard.
Other things will be more subtle and nuanced. That’s why you’ll miss them if you’re not looking for them.
How to listen better
There are many ways you can become a better listener. Here are six steps you can put into practice immediately.
The results will amaze you.
1) Be an absorber, not just an observer
One of the biggest challenges we all face in listening is to listen without thinking. Our habit is to think about what we’re going to say next.
Or to drift off in thought based on something the other person said. Or to think about something we need to do later. Or any other number of things.
People speak more slowly than we are able to process information. But that’s not the goal. The goal is to absorb the information and everything about how it’s being conveyed and who is speaking to us.
Listen without thinking. Easier said than done. But you can absolutely get better at it with practice.
One technique that helps is to maintain eye contact as much as possible. Eye contact is a powerful level of human interaction. This helps you to pay better attention and it helps the other person *feel* that attention.
Which is important. Because you’re not just processing information, you are making a human connection.
2) Let the silence do the work
Another thing we all tend to do is interrupt someone when they’re talking. Many times this is a natural way for a conversation to flow. After all, we’re not robots. We’re emotional beings connecting in a lively manner.
However, you can improve your listening skills by resisting this urge. Letting the other person complete their thoughts can help them to get more out and you to take more in.
Taking that one step further, don’t be afraid of silence. Many times we jump in to fill up any empty space in a conversation. But if you can let the silence do the work, it will often allow the other person to think a bit more and to form more thoughts to share.
One way to get better at this is to practice. Meditation is an obvious thing to try, because that’s all about sitting alone with your thoughts and not reacting to them. But you can also practice sitting quietly in any number of situations every day.
3) Ask follow up questions
Your goal in being a better listener is to gain a deeper understanding of what the other person is trying to say. Too often we skim over important things or we make assumptions.
It’s better to seek clarity. Asking follow up questions is one of the simplest but most powerful ways to get to the next level.
It can be as simple as asking for an example about something. Or maybe to ask them to explain something differently or in more detail. You might ask why they feel a certain way about something. Or you might ask how they came to a certain conclusion.
This can really open up opportunities for you to learn more. It can also help the other person think things through–or see where they maybe have some more thinking to do.
You might uncover key assumptions they are making. It could be that you find gaps in their understanding of something. Or it could be that you obtain an important insight that fills a gap that you maybe didn’t even realize that you had in your understanding of something.
4) Gauge the feelings
Most communication is non-verbal, so be sure to look at things like body language as part of your listening.
You don’t need to be some kind of expert. But you do need to pay attention. Does the person seem uptight? Relaxed? Confident? Concerned?
This might come across in body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions. You might also notice it in their choice of words. Or the cadence of their speech.
If you try to tune into feelings, you will pick up the signals. It’s human nature. But too often we are too caught up in our own selves to catch all of these cues that are coming across.
And, don’t forget, you can always ask. How are you feeling about this? What concerns you the most? Do you think people are excited about this idea?
Gauging the “vibe” of the meeting or the “feel” of the conversation or the emotions of a person can be immensely helpful to your listening.
5) Test your understanding
Maybe the best way to do a really good job of listening is to test your understanding.
Can you restate something back to the other person and have them agree that’s what they said or meant?
Tell me if I go this right….
Let’s see if I understand this correctly…
What I heard you say was…
If you can repeat things back and get clarity until you’ve got it right, then you will have done about the best you could to understand what the other person is saying.
6) Take notes
It seems so simple and obvious, but often we don’t feel like taking notes and listening go hand in hand.
After all, trying to write everything down would just distract us from all of these other tips and techniques.
True, but the point isn’t to record the conversation like a stenographer. That’s not note taking.
Taking notes in the act of listening, means being mindful to “note” certain things that resonate strongly, enlighten your understanding, or stand out in some other way.
Notes are notes, not a record. And taking them by hand with pen and paper is the way to go. It’s been proven by science to be very effective in absorbing information because you are translating into a form that is meaningful to you.
That may be doodles or scribbles or words or phrases. Whatever is meaningful to you. Whatever can help you remember, reconstruct, or interpret what you are listening to.
Also, taking notes when someone is talking is a clear sign of respect. It shows that you feel what they are saying is important. It demonstrates active listening on your part, again helping to build rapport.
If you want to be influential, you need to win the hearts and minds of others. You need them to know, like, and trust you. And you need to really understand what they are saying, what they are thinking, and how they are feeling.
This is where the age old saying, seek first to understand, then to be understood gains its power. Human history teaches us that those who truly listen well wield the most power and influence, because listening well is how you figure out what to say to make things happen.
At the same time, this ancient wisdom seems profound and elusive because while we know it’s true, we find it hard to enact. We can be easily distracted and too caught up in our own thoughts and concerns to listen well.
Fortunately, there are some simple steps we can take to change that. We can try to absorb things more completely by listening without thinking. We can let the silence do the work in cultivating deeper conversations by embracing pauses and resisting the urge to interrupt.
We can ask follow up questions. We can pay attention to feelings and emotions. And we can test our understanding by repeating these impressions and information back to the other person for confirmation or clarification.
Finally, we can take notes along the way, as a sign of respect and as a proven way to enhance our intake process. Not to mention our recall capability later on.
Everything you learn as a better listener will help you to become more influential in a number of different ways. You will know what to say, how to say it, and who to say it to. You will have a better sense of when and where to say it too. And you will be much better prepared to think on your feet as you navigate all of that.