How To Improve Your Listening Skills
We are about to discuss how you can improve your listening skills. This post specially for leaders and bosses.
Unless we can listen effectively or actively to our followers, then we will throw all our good questions down the drain, along with the relationship. In this post, we answer three questions.
- Why is listening difficult?
- How can we identify poor listening?
- How can we become better listeners?
Understanding Why Listening Is Difficult
There are six reasons for this.
Talkers Are Rewarded
Most of us learnt as babies that making a noise brought us attention. As children, the noisiest and loudest often became the leaders and innovators of childhood games and activities. In formal education, those children who always answered questions and spoke clearly and distinctly were more favoured and praised. And in adult and business life, this pattern continues. Those who make the most noise often gain more attention than they or their opinions deserve.
In the example of the boss and subordinate’s ineffective conversation (How to ask the right questions), the boss was a talker. He loved the sound of his own voice and only asked closed questions.
We Are More Important
Sometimes we say to ourselves – though rarely at the conscious level – that we are more important than the follower to whom we are talking. This is understandable as we all need to build our self-esteem and one way to do this is to feel superior to the individual with whom we are conversing. This reality can be reinforced given our ‘superior’ status. If we think we are more important – consciously or not – we will not listen actively.
We Are More Knowledgeable
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. A lot of knowledge can be even more dangerous when it comes to listening. It is a variation on the perception of importance reason, but this time it is not a perception that the follower to whom we are talking is not important, but that what they may have to say – the content – is not important. We know more than them, and say to ourselves, deep down, ‘Those who know nothing, have nothing to say’. Innocence and ignorance can be the source of much creativity and subsequent knowledge. Many inventions have come into being because somebody did not know ‘it couldn’t be done’ or did not accept ‘this is the way we do things round here’ and somebody else listened.
However, most of us succumb individually and collectively to the ‘new boy syndrome’. ‘Until you have earned your spurs, proved your competence, you have nothing to say’.
We Think Faster Than The Follower Speaks
This means that we have time available that can be put to good use, by concentrating and trying to fully comprehend what is being said to us; or to bad use, by allowing distractions and our own thoughts to intrude.
From the moment of our birth, we enter an uncertain world that has a complexity and a dynamic we can never comprehend. We are therefore driven, whether consciously or not, to manage that uncertainty. Some of us are capable of tolerating, even enjoying, high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty, but for all of us there is a degree and intensity to it that is unbearable.
To enable us to cope, we create and confirm areas of certainty – beliefs, assumptions, attitudes and opinions that we do not consciously question. If we did, we would raise the level of uncertainty in our lives. We would be taking a risk as we do not know what is the breaking point for us.
The stronger our mind-sets – which are likely to become stronger still in this age of increasing uncertainty – the more we can only listen to ourselves. We need to carry out a conscious and deliberate act of control and commit to change before we can ask the right question and listen effectively to the answers.
We Can Be Poor Speakers
The fault does not always lie with the listener; we can be poor speakers. We can speak too quickly. We can send out too much information. We can send out veiled messages with unsuitable speech patterns or mixed messages by using body language that is inconsistent with the words we speak.
The follower makes it difficult for us.
A key skill of an effective questioner is to use the power of questions to ensure that the messages received are clear to us and, in the process, clarify them for the follower!
How Can We Identify Poor Listening Skills?
If we can identify poor listening in ourselves, we can improve. If we identify poor listening in the follower, we can rectify the situation. Not only should we listen effectively to the follower, but ensure the messages we transmit are effectively picked up. Again, this can be achieved by using simple questions to ensure comprehension.
At the heart of poor listening is body language – the non-verbal signals transmitted in the form of the gestures we make or postures we adopt. However, language also has a part to play. There are six useful classifications.
There are two types:
We don’t want to listen, but we have been forced to listen because of, say, a direct, emotional request. We have responded aggressively. Our heart is not in it, and we feel resentful. We fold our arms, presenting a barrier to the receipt of information, our posture is stiff and we tend to glare.
The only way to avoid deliberate, aggressive listening is not to be aggressive! On a more practical level, we can deploy the ‘assertive pause’. If we receive a request we did not anticipate, we are automatically likely to respond emotionally. If we don’t like the request, the emotions will be negative and, in this case of a direct request, we will fall into aggressive listening.
By using the assertive pause, we will think more clearly, control the immediate negative emotional reaction and respond with effective questions and active listening.
We feel we ought to be listening, we want to listen, but are not very skilled at ‘active listening’ and try too hard. We feel the need to reassure the follower verbally with a ‘Yes, I am listening to you!’, which is a give-away to the follower that we are not! Our concentration at the conscious level makes us lean forward (perhaps invading the follower’s body space unintentionally) with a stiff posture. This results in what we think is an interesting look being perceived as a discomforting stare!
The only way to avoid this type of aggressive listening – because it is not conscious – is to practice active listening.
A very common form of poor listening! This is when we have no desire to speak, have resigned ourselves to listen (perhaps the follower likes to hear the sound of their own voice) and we drift off, slumped in the chair, body half turned away from the speaker, hand over mouth to conceal the occasional yawn, and little eye contact as we tend to look elsewhere. If we catch ourselves out in this mode, we need to ask a probing, open question – interrupt. ‘That’s an interesting point, but how does it relate to the issue we are focusing on?’
This is when we don’t want to listen, we want to speak. In the early stages, assuming we cannot find an appropriate moment to interrupt, we are likely to fidget in some fashion, such as drumming our fingers or playing with a pencil (assuming that is not the way we display nerves). Then we lean forward and interrupt.
Often, both parties can be in this mode simultaneously. The result is a bewildering dance of never-completed statements or themes, as the talking prize is snatched one from the other, then back again. The bodies move forward when talking and back as the threatened invasion of personal body space forces the involuntary move. The occasional fidget manifests itself if the unnatural state of silence is too prolonged!
The only way to avoid this is by developing the right mind-set or attitude in advance of the conversation, and the questioning skill to close down the verbiage of the follower.
This is when we listen with our minds, not our hearts. We are deaf to the messages conveyed by the way the follower speaks the words and the non-verbal signals. We hear and respond to the words only. ‘I’m getting divorced’ receives the reply ‘Then get a lawyer’.
Logical listening is often the precursor to passive listening. We start off a little detached because we are only operating at the logical and not emotional level. We are quick with the obvious logical solutions, then become bored and lapse into passive listening.
Logical listening can also be the precursor to aggressive listening. Followers want to share the feelings behind the verbal messages they make, and are quite capable of working out the logical responses for themselves. They pick up the lack of eye contact and the lack of warm, supportive body language, which compounds their sense of irritation stemming from the statement of the obvious. Assuming the conversation has not been terminated, they will often make the emotional appeal: ‘You are just not listening to me.’
We will then have the direct, emotional response (perceived negatively) that can trigger aggressive listening in the absence of that assertive pause.
When we feel very comfortable and confident, often in front of a subordinate, we can adopt an ‘aggressive’ posture – hands clasped behind our heads, leaning back, legs stretched forwards or even on a desk (at work) or stool (at home), as we gaze at the ceiling or down our noses! It does not necessarily display arrogance when we are on our own, as we could just be thinking, but it does if we are with the follower and are supposed to be listening.
It’s a posture that many of us adopt, but are resistant to recognizing as having arrogant overtones. It is interesting to note how we automatically remove our feet from the desk and change our stance, when our own boss comes in! In some oriental cultures, where the cult of the individual is less strong, it is a personal affront if you display the soles of your feet to a business colleague or acquaintance.
It is a self-centred style of ‘listening’, based on an assumption of superiority, and is very passive, as there is complete disinterest at both the logical and emotional levels. The body language is static as the posture will be maintained, whether we talk or listen. There is no positive eye contact, although we do not mind ‘looking down our noses’, the only way we can look in that position.
If our attention is eventually caught, then we will alter our postures and gestures, depending on whether or not we move into a logical listening, aggressive listening or listening interrupts mode.
If we take that deep breath and recognize what are we are doing and why, we can move into active listening.
We manifest this when we are in an awkward situation – a job interview, appraisal interview, talking to a ‘difficult boss’ or client. Occasionally, we might manifest this with a follower, if we are being put under pressure. We want to listen, we try to listen, but are only capable of listening to our heartbeat. This form of non listening manifests itself in nervous gestures, which are also displayed when we have to talk. There is an almost infinite number of nervous gestures, and each person has a favourite. We usually do not know we are making them. It is a matter of great surprise to managers when they see themselves on video for the first time to recognize this reality. We fiddle with our fingers, we fiddle with our hair, we fiddle with our faces, we cover our mouths and move our forefinger up and down our top lips, we tap-dance under the table, we move our chairs and tickle our ears. The list goes on and on.
As an aside, developing the ability to notice another’s involuntary gestures and, hence, their nervousness is a useful skill. If we want to generate empathy, we know we have a lot of work to do. If there has been verbal agreement to something we have said, we know that it was an involuntary agreement, unlikely to translate into action.
Our nervous listening will also be conveyed by the fact that we ask for information to be repeated, because we have not heard it properly, or by coming in with the answer to the wrong question.
As nervous listeners, there is little we can do, except take that deep breath, or breaths, to calm ourselves.
When the follower is behaving in this annoying manner, remember that it may well be nerves and try to calm them down.
A final point. Often, we try to control our nerves and our gestures and partially succeed. Assuming we are sitting down, the gestures move to our feet (the tap-dance or shuffle), which cannot be seen. What a keen observer will notice, however, is that we adopt a very rigid posture above the table.
How To Improve Your Listening Skills And Become A Better Listener
There are seven key ways in which we can become better listeners.
We need to recognize and believe in the power of effective listening – that, unless we listen effectively, we have wasted all those good questions. We have to want to listen ‘actively’. ‘Actively’ is an excellent word, because it conveys the reality that we have to make a conscious move to listen well. As we now know, effective listening is not a passive thing, a meaning the word conveys, but a difficult skill, in which we need to engage our hearts and minds actively, if we are going to be effective and reap the rewards of our questions.
We need to think, make that deliberate pause, and take that deep breath. As we have seen, it is our feelings, our opinions, our prejudices (whether against the follower or the content) or our nerves that deny us effective listening.
Just as good leaders learn how to take control, not of others, but of themselves, so too does the effective listener. Taking the time out as a discussion starts to say to ourselves, ‘I am going to listen’ will improve our skill. Deliberately pausing, when the comment comes that will trigger an instant negative logical or emotional response will improve our skill. In short, being proactive, not reactive.
Only when we have listened to ourselves can we listen effectively to the follower.
If we judge, we don’t really listen. If we judge in the act of listening, there are two outcomes.
If we don’t want to express our disagreement, we will be turned off and lapse into passive listening, thus denying an effective conversation. This passive listening, if we are in the follower role, can lead to the outcome (which annoys so many bosses because they don’t understand the reasons), where we verbally commit to doing things we don’t believe in or want to do and so either do badly or not at all, if we can find a good excuse, later!
If we do express our disagreement, we will move into aggressive listening or listening interrupts and the subsequent flow from us of closed questions will deny an effective conversation.
That may seem fine, but early agreement will mean we lose the possibility of picking up on some little nuances or new angles because we have stopped listening.
Check For Understanding
How often do both parties assume understanding, only to be rudely awakened subsequently by actions that are inconsistent with what was assumed? So, pause to recap and ensure you used the open question approach.
Use Positive Body Language
The words we speak account for around only 10 per cent of the total impact of a face-to-face communication. The way we speak – the tones, modulation, intensity, phrasing and use of pauses – makes for around 35 per cent of the total impact, and our body language – our gestures, posture and facial expression – a highly significant 55 per cent.
If we are listening effectively, then we will display the right body language. If we consciously try to use the right body language, we will probably feel awkward, but we will be better listeners. ‘Conscious incompetence’ will lead, with practice, to ‘conscious competence’ and, eventually, ‘unconscious competence’ or natural ability. ‘Rubbish!’, I hear some of you say. Not at all. It is why people being trained in good telephone technique are told to smile. When they do, the tone of their voice becomes warmer, and this is picked up at the other end of the phone.
So, let us now consider:
- Facial expression
- Body posture
Our facial expressions should reflect the feelings of the person talking to us. If the follower is feeling sad, look sad, if happy, look happy, and if angry, look angry – angry together at the source of the speaker’s anger.
If you are the source of anger, however, that’s a different kettle of fish. The speaker will get the impression that you are angry with them if you adopt an angry expression, which is likely to be the case. This is the moment for the assertive pause, not the angry response.
If there are no emotions being expressed, as the speaker is in logical mode, then look confident and thoughtful – you are both in thinking mode together.
There should be fairly frequent eye contact, but never a glare nor stare. Such eye contact stops you becoming distracted and conveys the message that you are, in fact, all ears.
Gestures are for the speaker, not the listener. By using appropriate gestures, the impact of the message of the speaker is significantly enhanced. Gestures on the part of the listener, however, are simply distracting – a form of non-verbal interruption.
Now, there is not a single right posture, as this will vary according to the situation – the logic or emotion being expressed, the ebb and flow of the conversation. However, in all situations, an assertive posture should be adopted, rather than an aggressive or a submissive one. For instance, when seated, the listener could take up an open position (neither legs nor arms folded), leaning forward slightly, with the head a little to one side, and hands clasped loosely together, resting on the lap. There are variations on this, such as leaning back slightly (to accommodate the other person leaning forward), with an open posture, one hand on the chin and the other supporting the elbow, or sitting straight with legs slightly apart, each hand resting on the appropriate knee. This last position is the best position for the back, and is known as the Pharaoh’s posture.
Another way of deciding on an effective posture is to consciously avoid all the postures covered under poor listening!
An effective listener uses words that have the right tone to convey
the right meaning. There are two aspects to this:
As we have seen, we should use our faces to reflect the speaker’s feelings. Equally, the words and tone can support this if we paraphrase the words or reflect the feelings of the speaker.
Show interest, too, by making those little verbal noises or even words that convey this. The murmur ‘mmmmhuh’ (or variations, which I will not try to spell) or ‘Well, I never’, ‘You don’t say’ or simply ‘I agree’.
We tend to dislike silence and rush in to fill it with words. However, in fact, silence can be a very powerful way to uncover truth. At a judicious moment, when we have asked a searching question and received a short, unsatisfactory response or we have made a telling statement, we fall silent until the follower speaks. What will often happen at such times is that the follower will reveal what they have tried to conceal. They rush in to fill that awkward pause. They are very consciously concerned about the silence. They are emotionally distracted and so what they were trying consciously to conceal slips out or, at the very least, a veil is removed that, if we are listening effectively, we can pick up on and probe.
However, this reality has more to do with effective interviewing skills than it does with effective listening skills. The main point is that a natural discomfort with silence may often impair our active listening, either because we do not pause to collect our thoughts and give a measured response or ask the right question or we speak when it would have better, from the other person’s point of view, if we had remained silent.
We can, by being silent, give them time to control their emotions or gather their thoughts, or simply share together a pleasant mood or ambience.
As Mozart said, ‘Silence is the most profound sound in music’.
Remember that just as bad listening destroys the power of the right question, without the right question you have little opportunity to listen actively. The two skills are inextricably interlinked. If you want to improve the quality, and effectiveness, of all your key relationships (not only the relationship with the follower), you have to develop both in tandem. Doing this is a powerful way of improving your own creative thinking skills as well as those of your followers.