As a good listener our goal is to understand the total meaning of the speaker’s message - the content and feelings - from their perspective. Ultimately, achieving this goal comes down to mindset, continually choosing to listen moment-by-moment throughout every conversation. How do we do this?
Listening doesn't just happen. It is an intentional act. Specifically, we continually decide to focus on the speaker instead of being distracted by activity around us and by our internal thoughts. And we willingly suspend our judgement and agendas in an attempt to see the world through their eyes.
There's no denying, these ongoing choices to listen can be difficult in the thick of a conversation. But strategies exist that help make our choices easier.
Deciding to Focus
James Clear, psychology writer at www.JamesClear.com and ‘Habit Coach’ points out that “technically, we are capable of doing two things at the same time. It is possible, for example, to watch TV while cooking dinner or to answer an email while talking on the phone.” But he then goes on to point out that “what is impossible, however, is concentrating on two tasks at once.” 
Applying this to the task of listening, you’re either listening to the person speaking, and the world around you is background noise. Or you’re occupied by internal thoughts and surrounding activities, and the speaker is background noise!
Focusing on the speaker is a conscious choice. An easy way of staying focused is to intentionally ask questions.
The reason that our mind begins to wander when other people talk is because it doesn't have any specific actions to process.
Asking questions helps with focus because it gives our brain actions to perform. It also forces us to take our mind off the dialogue blaring inside our head and focuses it on the conversation.
Since our goal is seeking to understand the speaker, here are some of the types of questions that can help our understanding:
“Can you please clarify [xyz]?”
“Tell me more.”
“Are you saying ... [rephrase the speaker’s sentences in your own words]?”
“You sound [happy, excited, angry, irritated, etc]. Tell me about it.”
“So, let me see if I’ve followed you… [summarise what they told you]. Is this correct?”
Three Strategies for Asking Effective Questions
Theoretically, remembering to clarify, encourage elaboration, restate, reflect, etc sounds like a reasonable approach. But in practice I’ve found that conversation is much more intuitive. At the height of a conversation I rarely think, "Hmmm... he's looking rather excitable. I wonder why. I know, I'll ask him a reflective question!"
Questions need to come out spontaneously.
So how do we ask effective questions automatically? Here are three strategies that I use.
Learn at Least One Thing
I maintain a curious mindset, always looking to discover and learn new things about the world around me. Applying this mindset to listening, I decide to learn at least one thing during each conversation (either about the person or about the conversation topic).
I stay alert for something said that captures my interest. When it does, I simply ask questions to find out more.
This is a great way to fight boredom in mundane conversations too!
Pay Attention to Your Triggered Internal Responses
Words and phrases trigger emotional responses inside me (frustration, confusion, annoyance, excitement, curiosity, etc). I pay attention to these internal responses and ask questions related to the associated trigger words and phrases.
Currently, my most powerful cue is frustration. I've learned that - for me - frustration is often a signal that I'm not fully understanding something I'm hearing. When I feel frustrated I ask a clarifying or elaboration-type question to draw out that missing information.
Actively Look for Cues
Speaker's usually display a continual flow of cues (enthusiasm, emotion, animated gestures, confidence, repeated mentions, etc) that reveal their passion, knowledge, or experience. Simply attempting to spot these cues helps prompt me to ask reflective-type questions. For example:
Summary - Deciding to Focus
- Our brains are wired to focus on only one thing at a time.
- Asking questions gives our brain something to do and prevents it from drifting.
- Questions help us clarify, elaborate, restate, reflect and summarise.
- Ask questions about anything that captures your interest.
- Ask questions related to your internal responses.
- Ask questions related to cues that you spot.
Being Willing to Listen
Being a good listener also hangs on whether or not we're willing to listen to the person in front of us. But the cold, hard truth is that sometimes we simply “don’t want to”.
Can you relate to any of these scenarios?
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve cherished at least a couple of these attitudes as well as been the target of others.
Overcoming these attitudes isn't complicated - simply choose to value the speaker's conversational needs as equal with our own.
But wow, what a choice! That choice calls for patience, openness, humility, forgiveness, curiosity and more. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Can we be bothered with such effort? Time and again though, I'm usually glad in hindsight that I did choose to listen.
I don't know any easy way of making this choice except to swallow hard and listen with empathy anyway.
But here are some reasons that encourage me that this choice is worthwhile. I hope that they encourage you too.
Benefits of Being Willing to Listen
Summary - Being Willing to Listen
- Sometimes we simply don't want to listen.
- There are many reasons for this unwillingness. But there's one response. Will we choose to listen?
- Being willing to listen is hard.
- But the benefits of being willing are extremely worthwhile.
- Decide to listen - swallow hard and do it. You'll be glad you did.
Start By Choosing
Choosing to listen is the starting point to being a good listener. All listening techniques depend on our decision to focus and willingness to truly understand the speaker.
What's one strategy that helps you choose to listen? Share it in the comments below to help us all.
- 1Clear, James, “Focus: The Ultimate Guide on How to Improve Focus and Concentration”, web article, 16 Nov. 2018, www.jamesclear.com/focus#Myth. Used with permission.