A key characteristic of great world leaders is their capacity to listen deeply. Those that come to mind include (the late) Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and closer to home, Mary Robinson. Their ability to listen has built connections between people, broken down barriers and resolved conflicts. Entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson have highlighted the importance of listening. As Richard Branson says, ‘Nobody ever learned anything from listening to themselves speak.’
Julian Treasure in his Ted talk on ‘Five ways to listen better,’ describes different listening positions, including reductive and expansive listening. Reductive listening is listening for, and expansive listening is listening with. Both types of listening are of value, but expansive listening is particularly important when trying to connect with someone and really understand their story. This is a style of listening which women are particularly skilled at.
However, like anything in life, we can always do better, so here are some tips to help you to listen better to others:
1. Hearing is not listening:
Just look at the difference between when you ask children to tidy up and if you say, “Do you want an icecream!” When we listen well, we are actively focusing our attention on the other person. It involves quieting our own inner chatter, and being open to the story of another.
2. Listen with your whole body:
Stop what you are doing, and this particularly includes stopping looking at your phone or laptop. Be aware of having body language which is open- faced towards the person, arms uncrossed. When we listen we usually have eye contact with a person, and break it briefly, whereas when we speak it is more typical to look away more frequently. Use natural gesture to show that you are listening and connecting, such as nodding or making ‘hmm’ sounds.
3. Don’t just focus on the words:
Listen to what is said and what is unsaid. What has been left out? What is the person saying with their body? How do they sound? Is there a mismatch between the words being spoken and what their body shows you? Think about how many ways you could say “I’m fine”…happy, disinterested, angrily, depressed…
4. Say back key things that the person has said:
This shows that you are listening and that you have understood. You can start with, “So what I’m hearing is…” or, “I sense that what you’re saying is…” This can be particularly useful in situations when you don’t necessarily agree with the person. It’s also very helpful to get you out of the habit of jumping in with a solution, and giving the person a chance to work through their problem.
5. Write it down:
Jot down key things that the person is saying to you. Also write down thoughts or comments that come into your head. This is particularly important when you’re dealing with a conflict situation. When we disagree with someone we can tend to focus our attention on our argument back to the person. Jotting down your points means that you can get back to the task of listening.
6. Ask questions which increase your understanding of what the person is saying:
You’re trying to feel what it likes to walk in the person’s shoes.
7. Take time to do inner listening:
Sometimes what someone says can cause a reaction within us, triggering a thought, emotion or physical sensation. It can be really helpful to do ‘inner listening’ being aware of our own reactions both during and after we listen to someone.
To conclude, never underestimate the value of listening, and what it means to someone to be truly heard.