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Consider the following statement: “I know that you think I understood what you said, but you didn’t say what you thought you did, so I have no way of knowing what you want until you know what I thought you meant.” What this phrase so aptly demonstrates is that for any conversation to have real meaning, attentive listening is essential. We’re now going to take a closer look at how you can make your listening skills even more rewarding and productive.
CLEARING YOUR MIND
There’s only one way to listen productively, and that is to remove all distractions from your mind so that you can concentrate on the speaker. Most distractions come directly from your own thoughts, senses, and emotions.
If you took a bottle and filled it with a quart of orange juice, the liquid inside would be pure juice. But if you took the same bottle and filled it with a pint of orange juice and a pint of water, the liquid inside would be neither pure juice nor pure water.
Most people do the same sort of thing in conversations – they half fill their minds with the message they’re listening to, and half with their own thoughts. When they do this, their minds are like the second bottle – it’s neither the speaker’s message nor their own thoughts, but a mixture of the two.
You can correct this common mistake by learning to clear your mind of all-personal thoughts and concentrating only on the speaker’s words. Mastering this ability is sure to increase your listening productivity tenfold.
Sometimes a great new idea pops into your mind while you are listening to someone else. Often the idea is important and you don’t want to lose it. How do you keep the idea in mind and still devote your concentration to the other person?
When this happens, a good solution is to interrupt the speaker politely and ask him to bear with you for a few seconds while you write your idea down. Once the idea has been recorded, you mind will once again be free to give total attention to the speaker – and that’s something they really appreciate.
Another hindrance to good listening is the annoying habit of second- guessing. Since we are able to think much faster than we can speak, it’s often tempting to listen to the other person for a few minutes, then second-guess what point he is leading up to. Second-guessing, when it is not verbalized, usually only annoys the listener, since it can make following the thread of the speaker’s conversation difficult. (Keep in mind that your distraction might show in your body language).
This habit can become plainly insulting, however, if the listener interrupts the speaker and tries to complete the speaker’s thought. Although this may be good mental exercise, it’s extremely bad for interpersonal relations. The other person is certain to leave the conversation with a very low estimate of your sincerity as a listener. Those who are sought after by other people listen attentively and are able to control their own thoughts. Only unconscious communicators play the second-guessing game.
Consider how important communication is to psychologists; it’s their main tool for helping people change their behavior. It’s only natural, then, that they are always looking for more effective ways to converse. In one recent experiment, psychology students were told to conduct a series of five-minute counseling sessions using various approaches. All
sessions were videotaped and analyzed. The major finding was that the best results were obtained when the trainees went out of their way to maintain eye contact. They listened better when they looked directly at the speaker. In everyday conversation, this is an easy thing to do. Maintain eye contact and it can improve your listening productivity tremendously.
In addition to keeping eye contact, your ears should tune in as well. There may be a television set turned on in the room, other people talking loudly enough for you to hear, loud music playing nearby – all of these, and other distracting sounds, can draw your mind away from the speaker’s message.
You can train yourself to focus your ears, as well as your eyes, on the other person, in order to tune out all other sounds except the speaker’s voice. You are at your conversational best when you keep both your eyes and your ears in close contact with the speaker.
It would be natural for you to react emotionally if someone said. “There’s something that you do that bothers me, and I refuse to put up with it any longer” or “I know you feel strongly about this, but so do I, and I disagree with you.” In both cases the speaker wants to tell you something that’s important to him and in both cases your emotional reaction could prevent you from listening to him.
That’s why you’ll notice that good communicators always keep their emotions under control and make every attempt to listen objectively. They know they can’t respond intelligently to what the other person is saying until they know exactly how he feels.
At first glance, it would seem that controlling your thoughts, senses, and emotions might seem to be time and effort-consuming, but it really isn’t
hard. All you have to do is to be aware of the need for control. After a short time it will become second nature for your mind, senses, and emotions to react automatically to clear themselves of distractions as soon as another person begins to speak.
When this process becomes second nature, it will be easy to concentrate freely on the speaker. You’ll do a much better job of hearing what someone has to say. Mastering this ability will not only increase your reputation as a good listener but will also add greatly to the amount of personal enjoyment you derive from your discussions.
LET THEM KNOW YOU’RE ALIVE!
If there’s one person who can annoy almost anyone, it’s the blank-faced listener. A classic example is a mother who gives directions or makes a request of her children as they continue to watch TV or play, while they apparently ignore her. When she loses her temper and yells, “You haven’t heard a word I’ve said!” they turn very calmly and repeat her sentences verbatim. Sure, these are typical kids, but how often do you run into adults with the same behavior? Think about the people you know.
How many of them actually show interest on their faces when you talk with them? You can stare at their deadpan expressions forever and never know for sure if they’re listening to you, thinking their own thoughts, or in some cases if they’re even mentally awake.
Now think of the most animated person you know and recall how she reacts in a conversation with you. She makes you feel that she’s really interested in you, and she’s a real pleasure to talk with. Chances are that the most highly animated person you know is a female because women are generally more animated than men. But there’s absolutely no reason at all why there should be any difference between the sexes on this point. It’s easy for anyone to be animated once they learn that
their face isn’t really distorted when they allow their inner feeling to show through. Animation is vital to any meaningful exchange because when someone talks with you, that person can’t read your mind, and the only way he or she can tell if you’re listening is by your outward actions. The best actions that you can give him are real and revealing facial expressions.
Go ahead and use them, even if at first you feel that you’re overdoing it. Allow your to face reveal your inner feelings, and your listening technique will soon become a part of your natural personality. Once you’ve become an animated listener, you’ll be surprised by how it will make you much more welcome in conversational gatherings.
BALANCE GIVING AND TAKING
Giving will also make you a better listener. It’s a draining experience to talk to someone who asks you questions and listens to your answers but adds nothing of his own to the conversations. Although everyone realizes that it’s bad to monopolize a conversation by constant talking, most people don’t understand that it’s equally bad not to talk enough.
Good listening requires more than just giving someone a chance to talk and to express himself. Good listening requires both giving as well as taking. The people who are conversing should exchange opinions and information.
Sought-after conversationalists listen and give the other person a chance to express himself but also add information of their own so that the other person will feel that he’s getting something out of the conversation too. When you play the role of listener, you should aim for a balance of give-and-take.
It’s perfectly all right to base your comments on what the other person says, but rather than repeating his thought, try to add some new facts. For instance, when meeting someone new, a good listener may say, “Hi, I’m Tom Jones. I hear that we’re almost neighbors. I live on Friendly Court. Is your home near there?” The good listener has encouraged the
speaker to open up and share other information rather than just to respond with his name. The good listener also words his comments in a way that shows that he understands what the other person is saying. By giving information while in a listening role, you help the other person express himself without draining him dry, simply by asking a series of questions.
Establishing a good balance between listening and talking is one sure way to turn any conversation into a rewarding and fulfilling one for everyone involved.
DON’T LET WORDS GET IN THE WAY
Many times the words another person says do not express the real message he wants to convey. Even though he’s not saying what he means, he still expects you to hear and react to his true thoughts. It sounds like an impossible situation, but it happens every day.
As an example, two friends may be talking, and one is telling the other how her old dresses don’t fit anymore. She says, “For two weeks I’ve been going from store to store, but the stores are either out of the smaller sizes, or the dresses don’t flatter my new figure.” What she is really saying is “I am proud that I lost ten pounds, and now my old clothes don’t fit anymore.” If the friend would listen carefully, she could win favor and friendship by congratulating the weight loss.
If she were not a good listener, she may have responded with a complaint about her bad shopping experiences and would have annoyed her friend. This kind of subtlety is a common human trait because many people think it is bad manners to compliment themselves directly.
Similarly, many people don’t like to criticize another person directly. So rather than say what they’re thinking, they make up a white lie. This practice is so natural and universal that advertising professionals often base ads on it. For example, one ad I’ve seen shows Tom, a nice guy but with a personal-appearance problem that repels others. The first
scene shows a pretty woman turning him down for a date. But rather than giving the real reason, she says that she’s busy on Tuesday night. Tom doesn’t listen carefully enough to catch the fact that she isn’t saying what’s really on her mind – that she doesn’t want to date him because she’s turned off by his personal appearance.
Scene two has the office blabbermouth talking to Tom and accidentally referring to his problem. Tom then uses the advertised product. The final scene shows Tom at dinner with the pretty woman.
But rather than saying, “You really look nice now that your problem is solved,” she says, “You look great. Have you been on vacation?” Again the woman uses a subtle subtext and doesn’t really say what she’s thinking.
The commercial is exaggerated, but it does illustrate a conventional truth. Many people don’t listen carefully enough to catch whether or not someone is really saying what’s on his mind. Good listeners have learned these two tricks that help them listen between the lines and spot subtlety.
First of all, be alert. Often we don’t hear the real message because we’re more interested in talking about ourselves than in listening to what the other person wanted to say. Trick number two is to look for patterns.
Once you’re alert and listening attentively, you’ll be much more likely to spot those times when someone isn’t saying what he’s thinking. In the TV commercial, an alert Tom wouldn’t have needed a water-fountain blabbermouth to cue him in on his problem he would have searched for patterns in the way people reacted whenever he was near them.
Patterns can take many forms. For instance, when a specific topic is being discussed, if someone pulls away from you ever so slightly, it is a surefire hint that your opinion on that subject conflicts with his.
He can also subtly warn you by raising his voice or by speaking a little faster in a somewhat nervous voice. Whatever form the pattern takes, an alert listener finds it easy to listen between the lines, to spot the pattern and
analyze it, and then to reply to the real communication. This is the secret that many good conversationalists have used to establish their reputations as good listeners. It’s an easy and natural secret to use, and there is no reason why you cannot use it too.
A SINCERE PERSON IS A PERSUASIVE PERSON
Of all the personality traits, the one that drives people away most quickly is insincerity. Luckily, nearly everyone is sincere at heart, but even the most sincere person can listen in such a poor way that he gives the appearance of being insincere. Let’s take a look at four examples.
Consider this episode: You’re having lunch with your friend Sam, and he expresses an interest in your woodworking hobby, saying that he’s always wanted to make a piece of furniture, but didn’t know how to go about it.
He asks you for some hints. Naturally, you’re proud of your talents and are glad to answer Sam’s questions. You start by explaining the importance of choosing the right wood, then you go over the process of joining each piece, and finally you describe how to sand, stain, and seal each piece so that it matches.
When you stop, Sam asks why it’s so important to choose the right wood. What gave Sam the appearance of insincerity was the timing of his question. He should have asked it at the most logical time – early in the conversation when you first stressed the importance of choosing the right wood.
His poor timing was caused either by slow timing or a desire not to interrupt. But whatever the cause, he damaged his friendship with you by creating the impression of being an insincere listener.
Example number two involves your neighbor Charlie. He’s having trouble with his yard turning brown at the first sign of the summer heat. Knowing that you had the same problem, he asks you for your advice. So you drop what you’re doing, go over to his house, and show him that
the bottom layer of his lawn is a mat of dead grass, deep roots, and peat moss. You explain how the new grass dries up and dies once the weather turns warm, and that a landscaper once advised you to rotary till your own lawn to solve a similar problem.
Since you did that, you no longer have a problem. Charlie realizes that it’s a big project and asks if there are any alternatives. You explain that there are chemicals, but they take years to be effective, and rotary tilling is really the only option. He agrees that this is probably the best action for him to take and notes again the successful outcome that you’ve had.
You go back home feeling good for helping out, even though you did lose an hour out of a very busy Saturday. The next day you see Charlie throwing grass seed right out over the old, dried-out mat.
Perhaps Charlie’s appearance of insincerity came about because he wasn’t convinced by what you said. He’s under no obligation to follow your advice, but he does have a responsibility, to be honest and sincere. If Charlie disagrees with you, he could thank you for your advice and admit that you’re probably right, but it’s too much work and expense.
Though you may be disappointed in his decision, you would respect him for his honesty and straightforward sincerity. Or it may be that he agreed with you and at first, then changed his mind after thinking about the time and expense involved. That’s all right too.
But he did ask for your advice, and you went out of your way to give it. Therefore he does owe you a thanks and an explanation of some kind, even if he’s changed his mind. What caused Charlie’s appearance of insincerity was false agreement – he told you one thing and did another.
The third example has you talking with an acquaintance, Mary, who attended the same social event you did last night. You remark on how good the food was, how much you enjoyed the host’s graciousness, especially in planning such clever icebreaker games so the everyone could have a chance to get to know each other better. Mary agrees that
she also had a very good time. You leave the conversation feeling good about Mary because she thinks the same way you do. Later you meet Jeff, who has also discussed the party with Mary.
Jeff tells how Mary had said she disliked the party; she’d told him the host was a bore and that games are for kids. Mary was more than just insincere – she was outright dishonest. Throughout your conversation, she agreed with you, then later expressed opposite opinions to someone else.
Perhaps she did this because she thinks that the way to make friends is simply to agree with whatever the other person says. Unfortunately dishonest agreement, no matter how well-intentioned the motive, can only result in being thought of as insincere.
The last example has you talking with Susan, who knows that you invest in the stock market. She asks how you’re doing, and you reply that you made a 10% profit in one week. She asks how you did it, and you tell her that you use a rather complicated process.
She begs you to elaborate. Convinced of her sincerity, you explain your system of finding those few stocks that tend to change in price quickly; then you study their price patterns carefully.
When you think a stock is about to go up in price, you quickly buy a few hundred shares and then sell them as soon as they go up two or three points. You keep your explanation simple and use lots of examples. You then ask Susan if she understands, and she says, “Yes, you take a lot of money and invest it or a long time.” Such a total lack of attentiveness is insincerity at its worst!
Susan’s questions, designed to encourage you to talk about one of your interests, were asked only with the aim of making you like her, and nothing else. There’s nothing wrong with using this technique, but to use it properly, your interest must be sincere, and you need to make an honest effort to understand.
While Susan’s technique for getting you to talk to her was good, her inattention caused it to backfire. Instead of liking her because she’s interested in you, you end up resenting her because she’s an insincere listener.
Poor timing, disagreement, outright dishonesty, or inattentiveness – whatever the cause of insincere listening, it’s sure to destroy your effectiveness. To avoid being perceived as insincere, you only need to conduct yourself in a way that conveys your sincerity toward the other person.
First, listen carefully and concentrate on what the other person is saying. You’ll always be attentive and will then automatically ask the right questions at the right time. Next, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine how he’ll react to what you say. In this way, you’ll be sure not to be false or dishonest in your conversation because you know it will eventually catch up to you.
FIVE ACTION STEPS TO MAKE YOU A BETTER LISTENER
- Remove the distractions that come into your mind through your thoughts, senses, and emotion so that you can concentrate on the speaker. Avoid playing the game of second-guessing and allow the speaker to complete his thoughts without adding interruptions. Realize, though, that it is okay to ask for clarification if you are not sure what his point is.
- Maintain eye contact with the speaker and let your ears tune in as well. Block out other distractions so that the speaker has your total attention. Be animated and let your face reveal your inner feelings.
- Aim for a balance of give-and-take rather than just asking a series of questions. Ask questions that require more than a short answer and offer information of your own. This gets the other person to open up to you more readily and allows you to use good listening skills.
- Listen between the lines of the real message that is being communicated. Subtlety is a common human trait, and you will be valued as a good listener once you’ve learned to listen to more than just the words.
- Avoid the traps of being labeled an insincere listener – poor timing in asking questions, false agreement or downright dishonesty, and inattentiveness. Put yourself in the speaker’s place and imagine how he would react to what you say and how your behavior is reflecting your interest.
The guidelines that I’ve given you are both easy to follow and easy to build into your personality. Once they’ve become a habit, you’ll be surprised how they’ll increase your listening effectiveness and help you win and influence the people with whom you talk.