Good listening relies on attitude. Proven listening techniques are essential to effective listening. But our listening attitude is the difference between those techniques bringing forth meaningful, honest, profitable conversations or hollow and insincere ones, which others can sense a mile away. Genuinely seeking to understand the speaker needs to be our top motivation.
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An Awkward Encounter With A Listening Attitude
I recently bumped into a friend at a store and we stopped for a brief chat. More than a year had passed since we last saw each other. They asked some questions and seemed happy enough to see me. But their body language and other non-verbal cues were screaming a different story. They were on a shopping mission and I was delaying them! So I excused myself and left them to it.
Lack of desire to talk kills conversations. But even when willingness does exist, using listening techniques only to ‘show’ that we’re listening, still loudly signals insincerity.
We must enter conversations with the attitude of wanting to fully understand others, even people with whom we don’t agree.
Below I discuss seven ways that I find helpful for cultivating an attitude of genuinely listening to gain full understanding.
This is part 3 in a series on developing a constructive listening attitude. Check out the two previous posts here:
1. Decide to Learn at Least One Thing
Be curious. Listen with empathy.
Latent within every person are experiences, wisdom, core-beliefs, unique ways of viewing the world, creative ideas, dreams, plans, hopes, inspiration.
I treat each conversation - even ‘boring’ ones - as an opportunity to uncover these ‘treasures’ and learn something. Often it’s not earth-shattering. But by maintaining this listening attitude I always come away viewing life a little differently for the better.
2. Choose to be Unhurried
Give conversations the time they truly need.
Stop what you are doing to fully focus on the speaker. Listening involves paying complete attention to what they’re saying in order to ask pertinent questions that increase your understanding of their message.
Sometimes however, this is not possible. They may have interrupted an important task. Or your mind might be preoccupied with other concerns.
If you can’t give your undivided attention, don’t try to hurry through the conversation. Ask them for a few minutes to finish what you are doing. Or suggest a specific time when you can focus. I find that most people are amenable to this request.
3. Exercise Patience
Exercising an attitude of listening with patience produces considerate conversations.
In group situations, don’t feel obliged to be first to jump into the talking (unless you’re facilitating). Absorb the dynamics. Listen to what’s being shared. Ask questions to inform yourself of people’s views on the current topic. Then others will listen in kind as you share yours.
If it’s your first time with a group, realise that you’re a guest and prudently take a backseat until invited to engage more fully. This builds rapport. Occupy yourself by trying to observe any important etiquette that’s in action. And listen by asking respectful questions.
In both one-to-one and group situations, some people take time to share their views. Don’t interrupt them or finish their sentences. Give them the space they need. Encourage them with nods, appropriate eye contact and back channel signals such as “mhm”, “yes”, “aha”, “uh-huh”, “go on” and “that makes sense”. If they waffle, use the occasional question to focus them a bit, but avoid manipulation. I find that this effort is often rewarded with useful insights that wouldn’t have been shared if I’d impatiently cut them short.
4. Listen with Respect
Regardless of how another person speaks to us, attacking someone does nothing for the discussion or the relationship.
Resolve to stay calm. Refuse to adopt their listening attitude. Treat them respectful as you would expect to be treated. Take the opportunity to explore their emotional response by asking reflective questions.
Asking questions is also a useful technique for helping manage your emotions and theirs. It will shift you both from an emotionally heightened state into a more objective, reasoned state.  And when responding, do so in an open and honest, yet tactful manner.
From a more positive aspect, listening with the genuine goal of understanding someone will cause them to feel respected and valued - people have explicitly thanked me for taking time to listen. Often they then start listening to me with that same respect.
5. Assume Positive Intentions
When something we’re told feels harsh or incorrect, it’s easy to make negative assumptions about that person. “They’re incompetent.” “They’re lying.” “They’ve got it in for me.” “They don’t care.” “They’ve got hidden agendas.”
But the reality is that we don’t know their internal motives in this particular situation. Our negative assessment of that person comes from our biases, past experiences, opinions, core values, etc.
To avoid misunderstandings, start by assuming that they have positive intentions even when you don’t know them personally, or don’t have a good relationship with them. Assume that they want to share factual information that is helpful to the current situation or endeavour.
It’s okay to be wary based on any past experiences with them. But start positive and then use listening skills to determine whether or not your negative assessment is warranted in this case.
By assuming positive intentions I’ve found that I listen much better. I stay more objective. I’m less defensive and critical. It’s easier to manage unhelpful internal emotions. I avoid making regrettable comments - it scares me how many times I’ve nearly irreversibly damaged good relationships! I’m motivated to explore the current situation with thoughtful questions in order to truly understand the speaker’s perspective.
6. Compensate for Personal Biases and Filters
Regardless of how good a listener we are, we actually only ever hear what we think others must have meant. This is because we filter their words, gestures, tone of voice, etc through our own life experiences, attitudes, core beliefs and worldview.
Furthermore, flaws occur in the way our brains process information. These are called ‘cognitive biases’. Here are three common cognitive biases that affect our listening:
The primary way of overcoming filters and biases to improve our listening attitude is to:
Honestly admit that we all skew information to our favour.
Listen actively by asking neutral questions to clarify what you’ve heard and to draw out more information.
Paraphrase to the other person what you think you’ve heard
Immediately ask them whether or not this paraphrase is a fair understanding of what they meant.
7. Realise That Listening Is As Important As Speaking
Simply knowing the importance of listening can provide much needed motivation for putting in the effort to listen.
Often listening can feel like the poor cousin of speaking - “they get to voice their opinions while we just stand there.” But this is actually a faulty view that generates a poor listening attitude.
Being a genuine listener is a position of strength.
It’s true that we do need to create space at some point in the conversation to voice our views. But what are we basing those views upon? Assumptions? Very risky!
Recently, a salesman felt pressured when I asked him the reason for the high cost of a service. Assuming that I wanted to beat down the price, he began to defensively justify it. But then surprisingly proceeded to discount the work.
He gave away too much.
Asking me a couple of questions in reply would have revealed that I was simply satisfying myself that his price was fair. By the way, I intend to share this with him.
Listening enables us to make informed decisions because we’ve taken time to understand the speaker’s perspective, motivations and constraints.
I truly hope that these seven tips help further enhance your listening attitude. How do you motivate yourself to listen to people with genuine intention to understand? Tell us about it in the comments.
And share this article with someone whom you think will enjoy it.
- 1Asking questions to calm down an emotionally charged conversation is based on aspects of a Transactional Analysis model called the Parent-Adult-Child (PAC) model. Asking an emotional person questions attempts to pull them out of their current emotional ‘Child ego-state’ or ‘Parent ego-state’ into an ‘adult ego-state’, which is characterised by rational, logical thinking. If they cooperate then the conversation enters a state where information can be shared as equals, adult to adult.
- 2Read, Nick, "Managing People – Enhancing Your Interpersonal Communications", Short Course via The University of Auckland, August 2006, Training For Change, www.training4change.co.nz. Used with permission.
- 3Feature image credit: Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash