Listening Actively: what it means and why should I do it?
"One of the most challenging aspects of conversations is listening and responding to what other people say". This is from a Cardiff University project, looking at the effect environment has on social interaction.
What's left to a conversation if listening and responding to what the other person has said is taken away?
Is it still a conversation?
And what do we lose or miss out on if we're not listening well?
Good listening (or "active" listening as many call it) is a skill. It comes naturally to some, but for the rest of us, it has to be learnt. Here's some of the most common signs that I've come across as a mediator and lawyer of people not listening actively or effectively:
Your mind races through what you're going to say next while the other person is still talking.
You offer advice even though it hasn't been requested.
You see a conversation as an opportunity to let the other person what or how much you know about a certain topic.
Every conversation for you is a debate or a battle of wills.
You focus only on issues which you agree with, or which accord with your way of thinking.
Before you start thinking that this blog is getting too "preachy", I'm happy to confess that as a junior lawyer, I did points 1 to 5. And back again.
But for many professionals, lawyers in particular, the 5 points above can sometimes be mistaken for ways of proving professional expertise and knowledge. Instead, "bad" listening means missing out on the real meaning of what the other person is trying to say: missing the chance to have productive, effective and meaningful conversations.
So here's my top tips for listening more effectively and improving the quality of your conversations. As I found, they take some effort but get easier:
1. Don't drift off into thinking about what how you're going to respond. How can you effectively respond if you haven't heard what the other person is saying?
2. Sometimes silence or keeping quiet is as powerful as saying something. Consider if you really need to speak.
3. Don't treat a conversation as a competition. You don't need to prove how much you know.
4. Listen to everything the other person is saying, even the parts that you don't agree with or that you think unreasonable. What's behind their words?
5. Don't be scared of being empathetic and acknowledging feelings. Minimising a person's fears or concerns is often unhelpful, but if you acknowledge and work with them, your conversation will be much more effective.
Try it with your clients, friends or family. You might be surprised how difficult listening actively can be to start with, but with some effort, your conversations will be transformed. Let me know how you get on.