The (Lost) Art of Listening – Five Steps to Understanding What Another Person is Saying

“Huh? What did you say?” This has been called “the Age of Distraction,” and anyone who has sat in a meeting or been to dinner with someone who is checking their emails while you are trying to converse with them, has felt what this means. We are constantly bombarded with new information. The brain works very hard to process all of what is coming at us – from our phones, our MP3s, the Internet, our voice mails and any in-person discussions we may have. We live in a world where we can put our hands on basically any information we desire, at any time. But have we lost the art of slowing down, concentrating on what someone else is saying and reaching true understanding?

We know that research has proven time and again that we can’t effectively do two things at once. While “multi-tasking” has become the norm of our society, we are not hard-wired to be able to effectively do more than one thing at a time. When it comes to listening to others, it’s important to remember this. Have you ever been on the phone with someone and trying to read your emails at the same time? Or on the phone “listening” to someone else while your child or spouse stands near you asking you a question? Or typing an email while someone is talking to you on a speakerphone? The truth is that we have all done it. But if we had to replay the conversation, do we know everything that was said to us by the other person while we were focused on something else? Of course not. We know it isn’t physically possible.

We lose a great deal when we neglect to focus on another person. When we aren’t giving our full attention and we have to ask someone to repeat themselves, we send a message to that other person that they just aren’t that important to us. We don’t learn as much about others, and we can’t possibly convey that we care about others, without putting the energy and attention into listening to them.

How can we reclaim the lost art of listening? Here are five steps to take to begin to turn your attention away from what distracts you, and onto the person who needs you to listen:

(1)    Become aware of your filters. We all have them. We take in information through the filter of “me”. We process it, digest it and understand it by relating it to something we think we already know. Unfortunately, in the listening arena, this means we may not allow someone to finish their thought. Or we may put a label on what they are saying, or judge their experience. We are quick to jump to a conclusion, thinking we “know” what they are saying. Putting aside our filters means we stop those voices in our heads while we are listening to someone else. We don’t cut them off in mid-sentence. We don’t respond to their story with a story about our lives and our concerns. Instead, we listen and patiently wait for the person to explain. We probe and ask “why” questions for deeper understanding; not in a combative way, but with a sincere interest and curiosity. Seek to learn who they really are and why they say what they say.

(2)    Watch behavioral styles. We all have different communication approaches. Some of us are bold and definitive in our approach. Others prefer to think about things and mull over them. Some of us are upbeat and gregarious, while others are more non-emotional and even critical. Different styles can get in the way of our understanding. We focus more on how someone is saying something, rather than what they are saying. In fact, we can even stop listening because we become so aware of the other person’s tone, body language and pace. Realize that often when we “don’t like” someone, it is really because we are reacting to their style. We can stop paying attention because of this interpersonal distraction. Be aware of it when it happens. Look past the style, and try to understand the meaning behind the words the person is conveying to you.

(3)    Give ’em your full attention. It takes energy and commitment to give someone your full attention when they are talking. This means you can’t drive and talk, you can’t read emails and talk, and you can’t “get something done” while you talk. When in person, physically face the person. On the phone, refuse to look at other things; imagine the person is in front of you watching you. At the moment you are listening, consider that person, and the engagement you are having, to be the center of your universe. Nothing else matters. Pretend you’ve never talked to them before and you don’t know anything about them, and it’s your job – your requirement – to learn all that you can. If you cannot muster up the energy for this type of engagement with someone else, don’t bother interacting. We know when another person doesn’t really have the time or effort for us. If you care, create the energy you need to make that person the central figure of your life for the period of time they are talking to you. Focus. Focus. Focus.

(4)    Don’t assume you know what they mean. How often do we want to move the conversation along, so we jump to conclusions and make assumptions about what someone else is saying? We hear a word we recognize, or a theme that makes sense to us, and we stop listening – assuming we know what’s going on. Most of us have had the situation where we acted on something, assuming we knew what another person wanted. We were sure of ourselves and responded – only to find out we were wrong. We misunderstood something entirely. It’s frustrating for both parties when this happens. Realize that if you “think” someone else wants something, or means something or is in need of something, you are probably wrong! Instead of thinking about them, talk with them. Seek clarification and understanding. Get specific – instead of “Do you want me to call you?” respond with, “Do you want me to call you on your cell phone next Wednesday afternoon?” Don’t use “Cliff Notes” with your conversations. Take the time to clarify and specify, so you know what’s being conveyed or required.

(5)    Make listening a priority. When you think about things you want to be known for, most of us want to be recognized for how smart we are, or how successful we are, or how socially “wired” we are. How many of us strive to be recognized for being a good listener? How many people get up in the morning and set a goal of really listening to each person they encounter that day? If you want to recapture the lost art of listening, you have to make it a priority. It has to be an important focus for you and something that you care about. If you give the process short shrift, you can’t possibly improve your skills. Many of us yearn for that person who will listen; that person who seems to care only about us, and what we are saying in that moment. It’s a human desire to be understood! If you can be the person who listens well, and cares what others are saying, you will be memorable in business and in life.

Bringing back the lost art of listening in the Age of Distraction won’t be easy. But it’s possible, and it’s necessary if you really want to know what others care about and what’s happening in their lives. In business it is essential to listen well, and in our personal lives it makes us a much more appealing friend or mate!