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Every Good Listener Exhibits This One Vital Attitude: Choosing to Listen

Every good listener starts here.

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?

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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.” [1]

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.

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:

  • Questions to clarify confusing statements.

“Can you please clarify [xyz]?”

  • Questions that seek out more information by encouraging them to elaborate further.

“Tell me more.”

  • Questions that restate (paraphrase) their words in our own in order to confirm we’ve correctly understood them.

“Are you saying ... [rephrase the speaker’s sentences in your own words]?”

“You sound [happy, excited, angry, irritated, etc]. Tell me about it.”

  • Questions that summarise what we’ve discussed in order to confirm understanding, seek agreement or even to signal the end of a conversation.

“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:

  • “You seem passionate.  Why is that?”
  • “You keep coming back to [xyz].  Why the attraction?”
  •  “You seem to know a lot about this topic.  How did you gain experience in this area?”

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?

  • Bursting to share our news of “queuing for coffee just behind the Queen of England” 😉 we interrupt or overtalk the other person rather than listening to what they want to say.
  • Ignoring the speaker’s message because we’re offended by something - the offence could have been triggered by them or by some other circumstance.
  • We believe they are wrong. So we simply wait for them to stop talking in order to tell them why we disagree. For example, two team members with opposing views ‘talking at each other’ trying to convince the other how to implement a project.
  • We view the person and/or their views as unimportant and disregard them.
  • Comfortable with our own perspective of the world and uninterested in having that worldview challenged, we zone out - regardless of how logical the speaker’s ideas are.

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

  • We develop rapport. Our attitudes - sincere or otherwise - always show through. The speaker will generally respond to our genuine interest by conversing more cooperatively. Likewise, the speaker will quickly sense when we’re pretending to listen and eventually shut down.
  • We build trust. Choosing to respect their points-of-view and demonstrating value for what they have to say, even though we may disagree, encourages them to share more openly and honestly.
  • We clear up misunderstandings.
  • We gain insight about our world, life and the person talking to us – even from supposedly 'boring' conversations. The key is genuine humility. There's always something that we can learn from others regardless of our experience, authority, seniority or level of maturity with respect to the other person. I'm continually grateful for more senior people who truly listen to me. And I try to do the same.

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.

Notes

  • 1
    Clear, 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.
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About the Author

Hello, I’m Andrew Ward and the Kiwi guy writing most of the stuff on this website. You can read more about my story here.