Listening

Listening is a Powerful Tool

You, Me, and No-one Else

I’ve got some terrific mentors. I’m lucky. I think of two of them often, especially when I’m trying to be sure I listen well and avoid rushing others. As a creative person, it’s sometimes hard to stay in the moment and listen when the thing that someone else is saying is sparking a great idea in my head.

But, there’s a place for brainstorming and collaborating, and there’s a place for listening quietly — and absorbing. Truly listening means hearing the person out, reserving judgement, and doing the hard work of interpreting, evaluating, and understanding what the other person is saying.

Try it.

Focus on your coworker, client, partner, child, or parent today. Listen to what is said, and zoom in on the feelings or ideas behind the words. Don’t let yourself begin to compose a response in your head. Make them feel like in that very moment and for as long as is needed for them to finish, there’s nothing else in the world that matters.

Your full attention is a wonderful gift, and a powerful communications tool.

This post was originally published on September 10, 2019 and updated on October 6, 2020.

Photo by Luke Ellis-Craven on Unsplash
Listening Skills

Are you really a good listener?

How many people do you know who say they are good listeners, but really aren’t? I’m sure you know more than a few. 

I find that a lot of people who are good problem solvers think that also makes them good listeners. Yes, in many cases good listeners are good problem solvers. But being a good problem solver doesn’t automatically make you a good listener.

True listening (which is very different from hearing) requires work — and there are a lot of barriers. Distractions, your attitude toward the speaker or topic, and even your physical state (e.g., being hungry or tired) can all interfere. But the most common barrier is our tendency to begin formulating our response to what someone is saying rather than waiting for them to finish.

Observe your own behavior for the next week. How often do you find yourself thinking about your response before a speaker is finished? If it’s often, try to remind yourself to stay in the moment. Be quiet, let the speaker talk, and don’t think ahead to how you want to respond. Withhold judgement until you’ve had time to fully understand and comprehend what is being said. And eliminate those distractions you personally have control over (like your phone or smartwatch). 

Did you know that we typically comprehend and retain only 25% of what we hear? Add to that the distracted digital world we live in, and it makes us all poor listeners at times. But there are things you can do to improve your listening skills. The first step is reminding yourself to truly listen so you can stay in the moment and allow yourself to really comprehend what the speaker is communicating to you.

For more listening tips, check out my interactive workshop 10 Tips for Becoming a Better Listener or my quick class Be a Better Listener.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash
Communication Tip: Yes, and…

Yes, and…

I wanted to be an actor when I grew up. While my adult life didn’t go according to that plan, I was fortunate to do a lot of acting when I was younger. I also have a degree in Speech and Theatre Arts and began my career teaching theatre classes to high school students. 

One of my favorite lessons from the theatre is in improvisation, which involves carrying out a scene spontaneously, with no script. My fellow actors and I would make it up as we went along, based only on a theme or topic. Practicing and preforming improv (which is what we called it for short) often led to funny scenes that got the audience laughing, but it wasn’t always comedic. In fact, it was often more difficult when the scenes were serious.

When you are performing without a script, each actor relies on the other to set them up for success. That’s where the phrase “Yes, and…” comes into play. When you use language like this, it confirms agreement with where the story is going, and allows you to build on it. When improvising a scene, you might not literally say “Yes, and…” but that’s the spirit. For example:

ROBERT: “There’s a purple giraffe coming down the street! It must have escaped from that new circus that’s in town!”

DENISE: “I see it, too. I feel like I’m hallucinating. Oh my, now I see a turquoise elephant about 20 feet behind the giraffe. What’s going on?”

By confirming that she sees it too, and then adding to the ridiculous story, Denise supports Robert’s direction for the scene and adds to it so it can move forward. Imagine if she had said, “What? A purple giraffe? I don’t see it.” What’s Robert supposed to do with that response? Momentum shattered. Boom, end of scene.

Try to use this improvisational technique in your business life. If you can confirm what someone else has said to give it validity, and then add to it or expand on it, I’ll bet you’ll have more effective collaborations with your colleagues. And remember, “Yes, and…” is very different from “Yes, but….” The latter conveys disagreement, while the former communicates acceptance.

Don't Text and Listen

Don’t Text and Listen

Texting while driving is dangerous. We all know it. Yet many people still do it. It’s hard to resist the distraction of your phone buzzing or dinging. We know that phone notifications negatively affect productivity, even if we don’t check them right away. Just knowing there is a message waiting for our attention destroys our ability to concentrate.

In my listening workshop, I teach the importance of preparing yourself to listen. It’s not as easy as you think, and the many distractions that our digital world provides are a big part of the problem.

Here are some tips to help avoid distractions when it’s time to truly listen:

Prepare to listen

From hunger to tiredness, to thinking about the argument you had with your colleague Ricardo this morning, there are a variety of things that can keep you from focusing. Do your best to put yourself into a listening state of mind, and make sure you’re setting yourself up for success.

Avoid multitasking

If you’re checking email or social media during meetings or at the dinner table, you’re not listening. If a conversation you are in is important to you, focus on it and put other tasks aside until it’s finished.

Eliminate potential distractions

Distractions come in all shapes and sizes. Some are predictable and some are not. Make sure the ones you can control are avoided. Turn your phone and smartwatch off or put them in Do Not Disturb mode. 

Take notes

Taking notes helps you remember things. It can also help you stay in the moment. The bonus is that it also nonverbally communicates that you are listening to the speaker. How nice of you! However, be careful not to let your note taking become so extensive that you stop listening.

Postpone listening if you cannot concentrate

If you can’t fully invest yourself into the conversation at hand, sometimes it’s best to postpone it until later. Wouldn’t you rather hear this instead of sitting across from someone who is not listening to you: “I’m sorry, but we have an emergency going on and if I meet with you now, I won’t be able to concentrate. Our conversation is important to me. Can we move it to 4 p.m. today?” 

Listening well takes work, and there are a lot of barriers that will naturally get in the way. From your own biases or judgement of the speaker or topic to your physical and emotional state, there are many opportunities for inefficiencies. Don’t let distractions that you can control add to the mix.

Inspirational Quote Everyday Heroes

Everyday Heroes

Every week I share one of my favorite quotes with my team as a look-back on the week and a little inspirational push into the weekend. This week I shared the following short one:

“The simple act of caring is heroic.” —Edward Albert

Business as usual does not exist now — for anyone, and a little extra empathy and caring goes a long way. Keep it up everyone!

Give the Gift of Your Attention

Give It. Get It.

We are bombarded with messages every day from brands, employers, clients, friends, and family members. With so much coming our way through our screens, it’s understandable that we begin to tune out the noise—anything that we don’t deem worthy of our attention. Yet attention is what you need when you want to teach, motive, or persuade.

But you won’t earn anyone’s full attention if you’re not willing to give them yours.

Here are 6 tips to help:

  1. Demonstrate your commitment to being present and in the moment by giving your full attention to others.
  2. Expect the attention of others in return, and kindly ask for it if you’re not getting it. A simple, “Let’s all focus on the task at hand without interruption” should send the message.
  3. Listen more and speak less.
  4. Listen to what’s not being said.
  5. Be open to a different perspective.
  6. Be clear, concise, direct, and kind in your responses.

Anything else we should add to this list? Tell me in the comments.

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Tips for Being Heard at Work

Be Heard

When we feel we aren’t being heard, a common reaction is to talk louder. Or interrupt. And if you’re an introvert, you might lean the other way and keep your comments to yourself instead of trying to share them with those who need to hear them. 

Your voice counts. Considering how your brain operates in certain situations as well as how the specific people you communicate with listen and process information will help you be heard, and more importantly, understood. 

Here are some tips:

  1. Let kindness lead the way. You can never go wrong by being kind, and doing so diffuses tension and helps others avoid feeling defensive. Even in the most difficult conversations, when you show the other person that you care, you make your communications more tailored to their needs—and more effective. 
  2. Read the room. If you have experience with the people in the room, you likely know how they operate. Some may just want the facts quickly while some may like to dive in deep and understand the background. Whenever possible, try to tailor your communications to the needs of the people in the room and give them what they need to be able to connect with, and understand, you.
  3. Listen now and speak later. If you can’t formulate the right response on the fly, give yourself the time you need to process everything and craft a response that you can feel good about. You can always have a second conversation later when you’ve gathered your thoughts, or send a follow-up message with your response after the heat of the moment has passed.
  4. Don’t hide or procrastinate. It’s easy to hide behind emails or text communication because you can lob your thoughts over the fence to get it off your shoulders/mind/plate and plop it in their court. Consider when you need a call, videoconference, or meeting to discuss a topic, move something forward right away, or put an issue to bed. 
  5. A good visual can make all the difference. Some people need a visual aid to help them grasp a concept. Consider when a topic might benefit from something people can see to help them connect the dots. This can be something you prepare beforehand, or a quick sketch you create on a whiteboard to help people grasp the idea.
  6. Sometimes you just can’t beat a blowhard. There are people who need to hear themselves talk and refuse to listen. Don’t try to win. Instead, figure out how you can slowly persuade them over the longer term. Share your perspective but don’t expect to convince them to agree with you today.
  7. Let others be heard. Listening is probably the most powerful tool you have in your communications toolbox. Everyone wants to feel that their voice matters. 

And don’t forget, most people never get thanked for the good work they do—and it means a lot when they do. Thank people for contributing and validate when you hear something that contributes to the conversation.

What else should we add to this list?

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Listening to Nonverbal Communication

Listening With Your Eyes

What’s not said is sometimes more powerful than what is said. Some experts even suggest that nonverbal communication represents nearly two thirds of all communications. That’s a lot of messages that are largely available to your eyes (not to mention your other 4 senses).

That’s why I prefer to meet with people in person or through videoconference whenever possible. I am more effective at listening when I can see the people I’m speaking with. Their nonverbal communications give me much more insight into what I’m hearing and I can read more deeply into what is being said — which often gives me a better sense of where it’s coming from. And when I can see how they are reacting to what I’m saying, I can tailor my communications in real time to connect with them on a deeper level.

Speaking of being face to face with other people in real time, studies show that during social interactions people’s movements tend to become coordinated, which enhances rapport and fosters cooperation. Research also suggests that this “nonverbal synchrony” makes people more likely to successfully pursue joint goals. Interesting, right?

Think about a recent conversation you’ve had with someone through emails or text messages where the outcome wasn’t what you wanted or expected. Then think about how that conversation would have been different if you could have heard the other person’s voice or seen his or her facial expressions and body language.

Considering the value of nonverbal communication going forward will help you determine when a face-to-face meeting is in your favor.

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Face to Face Lunch Meeting

When You Need Clarity, Have Lunch

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a colleague, who is also a friend. It happened to be on a day when I was feeling a bit frustrated over a few things, but I was trying to stay positive so our lunch would be fun (like it usually is when we get together).

She could tell something wasn’t right with me, and she opened the door to let me air my frustrations. I did (but reluctantly because I didn’t want to be a downer)—and then she felt comfortable doing the same. 

The result was that we had a brutally honest conversation with each other, which helped us be brutally honest with ourselves. In less than an hour, we both walked away with more clarity on the issues we both faced, ideas for finding potential solutions, and a positive outlook that was energizing. 

If you haven’t done it in a while, get away from your desk and have lunch with a trusted friend, colleague, or mentor. I highly recommend it.

Photo by Sander Dalhuisen on Unsplash
Phones and Business Meetings

Why I Don’t Bring My Phone to Meetings

“I wish this conversation was as important as your phone.” That’s what I said to myself recently when a colleague kept looking at his phone with each buzz that came through during our 15-minute conversation. I was giving him what I thought was pretty valuable free advice, but I had to repeat myself so many times that I simply stopped being giving with my time and defaulted to meaningless chit-chat. I was annoyed, but then this experience did make me think about my own behavior.

My mobile phone usually sits face down beside me at home at the dinner table and lives in my pocket during meetings at work. Like almost everyone else, it’s nearly impossible not to look at it when it does that glorious ding or buzz that lets me know someone on the other end has something to say to me. At work, my excuse for having the phone with me at all times is to ensure I don’t miss a meeting (I live by my work calendar and its notifications).

I love my phone. I was one of those people you saw on TV back in 2007 waiting outside an Apple Store to ensure I got mine on launch day. However, I don’t like what all of these mobile screens have done to face-to-face communications. Last weekend, I observed a family of four at a restaurant (two parents, one late teen, and one early teen). They were all texting with others on their phones instead of talking with each other. (Maybe they were texting each other!) In business, I’ve had to pause meetings and sit and wait for clients to answer emails, calls, or texts on their phones before continuing our conversation. Are all of these interruptions really worthy of harpooning the momentum of a conversation with another human being who is in your presence?

Of course they aren’t. The rare emergency is understandable; the constant interruption is disrespectful. We can do better.

So, two months ago, I stopped bringing my phone to meetings and it’s been wonderful. I also leave it in another room when I have dinner at home. I was never the type who would take a call or respond to a message during a meeting or during dinner, but my phone would still buzz in my pocket taking my mind off of the conversation for a brief moment. That brief moment was enough to throw me off the path of what I was saying or what someone else was sharing. Without the phone there, I’m fully present and not distracted.

Try it.

Leave your phone behind during work meetings unless you’re expecting that rare, critical call. And when that’s the case, tell the people you’re with why your phone may need to trump your time with them. It’s a simple thing, but it will make people feel like you care about them more than the other person vying for your attention through your mobile device—one that likely doesn’t truly need an immediate response.

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