Updated: Mar 13
Listening is a critical skill in all areas of life, whether you’re collaborating with a colleague, dealing with an angry customer, supporting a loved one, or building a new relationship. Because we’re tuned into the world around us every waking moment of every day we can’t help but get complacent, and most of us aren’t as good at listening as we think we are. There is a saying, ‘most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.’ How true do you think that is? I’ll bet I’m not the only one who is sometimes guilty of doing this!
Listening – really listening – actively and effectively, is so much more rewarding for both parties. Here are some ways to help you do just that; to avoid misunderstanding, reduce the potential for conflict, and make your communication more effective and more meaningful!
In the Beginning…
It’s easy to forget how much influence we have over the direction of the conversation before it even starts, so make sure you are prepared to listen!
Look like you’re paying attention:
• Check your posture. Avoid crossed arms or crossed legs, which can make you look disinterested, defensive, or like you already have your mind made up. Lean slightly forward or sideways to show the speaker that you’re interested in what they have to say.
• In North American culture, eye contact is an important part of face-to-face conversation and when people avoid it, their behaviour is often viewed as untrustworthy or deceptive. While this could be true, it’s important to remember that there are many other reasons for this behaviour, including cultural practices, ideas about showing respect or gender roles, experiences, social anxiety, low self-confidence, or even a neurological condition such as autism.
So we know eye contact is expected, but what’s “appropriate?“ Not enough can make us suspicious, but too much can be intimidating. A good guideline is to make eye contact 50% of the time when you are the speaker and 70% of time when you are the listener. Of course, every interaction is unique, so it’s important to pay attention to the response we’re getting and adapt to each situation.
Establish eye contact at the very beginning of the conversation and hold it for about five seconds. Slowly look to one side and then go back to your eye contact. Don’t look down, as this can come across as if you lack confidence or want to end the conversation. If the other person’s agitation is escalating, reduce your ‘hold time’ to 2-3 seconds, and try looking at the side of their eyebrow, or the tip of their nose instead of directly into their eyes.
• When you put your ‘best face forward,’ it tells the other person you are listening to them and engaged in the conversation. Facial expressions trigger corresponding feelings in others and influence how people respond to you. A genuine smile tells those around you that you’re approachable and trustworthy; it changes the emotional state of both you and others in a positive way.
Encourage the speaker to continue by raising an eyebrow or tilting your head. This shows interest in, and curiosity about what they are saying. Nodding is also encouraging and can indicate agreement. Even when we don’t agree with the speaker’s message, this is an important way to acknowledge their perspective, or feelings about the situation.
Most of us have facial expressions that can get us into trouble and, if you’re reading this, you’re probably more self aware than many others, right? If you know about those troublesome expressions you can change them, so practice showing a pleasant neutral face to ensure your conversation starts in a productive way!
Listen without judging:
• Enter conversations with an open mind. If our face can create problems for us, so can theirs! Don’t make assumptions about what their expressions imply. Give them the benefit of the doubt and don’t take things personally.
• Focus intently on the speaker and give your full attention to understanding what they actually mean. When people are upset, it’s especially hard to communicate clearly, but challenge yourself to see past the actual words they are using and the way the message is being presented. This may be particularly difficult if they are using profanity or other inappropriate language but choosing to focus on their intention is the quickest and most effective way to deescalate any situation!
• Don’t react emotionally. Remain calm and open to what is being said, without assuming you know how they feel or why they are so angry.
Now that you’re in the right frame of mind, it’s time to move towards accepting the speaker’s perspective and understanding their goals.
Avoid distractions and concentrate fully on the speaker:
• Turn your computer screen off and put your phone where you can’t hear that tempting ‘ding, ding, ding’ of important text messages!
• If possible, have the conversation in a location that is quiet – but not isolated - if it's someone you don't know and trust! If you’re still finding it difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, mentally paraphrasing as they speak will reinforce their message and help you stay focused.
• Being interrupted is frustrating for everyone and you know it will happen to you! Stop speaking when it does, or when the other person begins to talk at the same time. Interrupting someone will almost certainly escalate the situation. It may also give the impression that you think you’re more important, or that you don’t have time for them or their problems.
• If you naturally think or speak quickly, force yourself to slow down so that the other person can express themselves. Assure them you are listening by using words of acknowledgement, like “right,” “of course,” “absolutely,” or “uh huh.”
• Even interruptions regarding something they’ve just said can reignite anger. If the conversation gets sidetracked, steer it back by saying, “So, you were telling me about…”.
Be Comfortable With Silence:
• When people are angry they are emotional and will need time to gather their thoughts or complete their sentence. Be patient and remember that a pause or a few seconds of silence means they’re processing their ideas, not that you have to jump in and say something.
Watch for Non-Verbal Cues:
• Paying attention to tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures can tell you just as much as the words that are being said. Notice what the other person is communicating with their body language and if it is changing. Are they crying, or rubbing their eyes as if they're tired or upset? Are they smiling? Are their arms crossed defensively or are they starting to relax?
• Even on the phone, you can learn a lot from the other person’s voice if you’re paying attention!
A Strong Finish…
Now is the time to ensure you understand the true meaning of all aspects of the speaker’s message. This will ensure you can effectively respond, to conclude the conversation in a positive and mutually beneficial way!
• Rephrase what you think is the meaning of the other person’s message back to them. If you’re correct it confirms you understand what the issue really is and if you’re not, it shows them that you are paying attention and care about getting it right!
Question to Clarify:
• Asking relevant questions shows that you’ve been listening and helps to clarify what has been said.
• If you’re dealing with someone who is very angry or upset, start with closed questions like “Where did this happen?” or “Do you remember what day it was?” to gather specific information and manage the emotion of the conversation.
• If someone is calm and rational, use open questions like “How did that make you feel?” or “What did you do next?” to gain a better understanding of the context, or the behaviours and attitudes of the speaker.
• If you need to clarify, wait until the speaker finishes their thought and then say something like “So what I understood you to say was … Did I get that right?” or “I’m not sure if I understood what you were saying about…” or “Did you mean that …?”
Hold That Thought:
• Part of listening is, well… listening! It’s not always easy, but when people vent, they often just want an encouraging and supportive audience. Most people don’t want to be told how to feel or what to do, they prefer to come to their own conclusions.
• If you really think your opinion or solution has value, ask the other person if they want to hear it before sharing. You could say something like “I have some ideas, if you’re interested.” or “Would you like to hear my suggestions?” or “I can tell you what I’d probably do in this situation.”
A real communications expert wants to advance from active listening to effective listening. How? It’s all about self awareness and continuous improvement!
• Active listening occurs when we try to understand, as clearly as possible, what the speaker is saying. This should be our practice in every conversation we are part of!
• Effective listening happens when we know what the speaker has said and then genuinely try to understand and empathize with their point of view. Before an angry person is ready to calm down, they need to feel like they are not just being listened to, but their words and emotions are truly being heard. That’s what effective listening is all about, and your sincere effort will often be enough to help relieve tension and deescalate the situation.
Now that we’ve discussed listening, both actively and effectively, will you take my listening challenge? Critically evaluate your communication habits and make a conscious effort to be an active listener at all times. Try spending a week in which you summarise the main points at the end of each conversation you have, or meeting you attend. The week after that, actively seek opportunities to practice your effective listening skills honestly and empathetically. Tell us how it went; we’d love to hear from you!
If you'd like to learn these and additional conflict resolution skills on an even deeper level, take our Strategic Conflict Resolution course!
P.S. Click here if you missed my blog on Empathy or want to do a quick quiz to assess your self-awareness!