Ten Steps To Recover The Lost Art Of Listening

| January 9, 2015

Business people in conversation mixed raceThe Epistle of James tells every one to be “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” (James 1:19).  That admonition is a one sentence primer on one of the most important, and one of the neglected, of business skills – the ability to listen.  Bernard Ferrari, the author of Power Listening, considers listening to be “the front end of decision making” and “the most critical business skill of all.”  Often we make bad or hasty decisions, because we do not carefully listen; and we don’t listen because we have not learned how to.

Modern society is all about outgoing communication.  Courses abound on public speaking and bloggers want to post every day.  But listening is a tool that when honed and used leads to greatly improved team building and decision making.  This is because, in the words of Ralph Nicholas (researcher and the author of Are You Listening?), “the most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

So, what are the practical steps for better listening?

1.    Realize that good listening is hard work.  It is not a passive activity.  It takes focus and concentration.  Just as a speaker prepares to effectively deliver a message, the listener should prepare to effectively receive it.  Just as the person talks wants to be understood, the person listening must want to understand.

2.    Focus on what is most important to the person speaking.  If you are in business negotiations, intentional listening will always reveal what is the top priority of the other party – and in every good negotiation you want to know what is their most important priority, and what they are willing to give up to get up.  If you are in a personal conversation, understanding what is most important to the speaker will give you great credibility when asked to offer your suggestions.

3.    Stop talking.  Do not interrupt (unless invited to) or talk over or finish the speaker’s sentences.  Just listen.

4.    Put away distractions.  This is easy to say and hard to do, because your brain can think much faster than another person can talk, and your brain will look for something to keep itself occupied.  So you have to be intentional in listening or you will end up being distracted. Put down the cell phone, turn away from the email, ignore the new text. Concentrate on giving the person you are listening to your undivided attention.

5.    Listen to understand.  Most people don’t – they listen to formulate a response.  Consciously listen without thinking about what you are going to say in reply.  Focus on taking in everything the other person is saying.

6.    Be attentive to the speaker.  Maintain a relaxed eye contact (remember when your parents told you “Look at me when I’m talking to you”?).  Looking at the person speaking is the first and most basic sign of respect.  Your own body language and tone should be responsive to the seriousness of the situation – from completely relaxed to very serious.  It is also important to convey with words that paying attention does not mean you necessarily agree – but it does mean you are paying attention.

7.    Keep an open mind.  Withhold your own judgment, and do not silently criticize.  Do not assume you know where this is going.  Wait until a person has finished speaking before you start to formulate your own opinion and your response.

8.    Ask questions that will clarify what you are hearing.  Usually, it is better not to interrupt, but to rather wait until the speaker pauses, and then ask about what you do not understand.  Questions are not to be like a cross-examination, designed to knock the other person down.  Rather, use questions to better understand.  Remember that active listening is very powerful – it actually puts you in control of the conversation so that by your questions, you can guide the discussion to where you want it to go.  Very often, a person will convince himself just by clarifying the options in response to your questions.

9.    Listen for what is not being said.  Often what the speaker does not say is just as important as what is being said.  Is the speaker not offering a solution because he does not want to face a difficult reality and is in denial?  Does the speaker present the situation or opportunity and then just trail off, indicating that she is looking to you to make a decision?   If you think there is more that is not being said, ask for it.  Bernard Ferrari counsels that the phrase “say more about that” is one of the most powerful questions you can ask, as it allows the speaker the freedom to open up.

10.    Be empathic – but stay grounded.  Recently, a group of lawyers visited a monastery for a day and a half session on listening taught by a monk.  One of the key insights was the analogy of a lifeguard.  The instructor (who had been lifeguard as a young adult), stressed that each lifeguard was trained to stay out of the water as long as possible – because plunging into the water to rescue a drowning victim is the riskiest and most dangerous way of helping people.  The first response to people in trouble was to stay grounded on land, and use lifesavers, pulls, and hooks.  Actually going into the water (where the person is thrashing and panicking) was always considered a last resort.  So when you are listening – strive to understand what you are being told, but maintain your own discipline and grounding when offering a solution.

Effective listening builds relationships, solves problems, resolves conflicts, solidifies friendships, advances careers, and saves money.  James, who wrote that each one should be “swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath”, practiced what he wrote.  He was always listening first.  In Acts 15, at the Council at Jerusalem, he listened to Peter, Paul, Barnabas, the Pharisees, and to “much dispute.”  Most of all, he listened to and quoted the Scriptures.  He was then able to offer a solution “that pleased the apostles and elders with the whole church.”  If we listen well, perhaps we can do so also.

Category: Lifestyle