‘Good listening skills’ is a trope that enters most of our lives in our very first years of school and an overly technical approach to this topic can give it a shallow cliché feel. But the art of listening is truly one of the foundational elements of building and maintaining relationships, as well as exercising leadership. Every day we make choices about how we embody this essential human activity, and unquestionably those decisions have an impact on our personal and professional lives. In this article, I want to briefly explore what it means to be a good listener and how this cultivates trust and mindfulness.
What does it take to become a good listener? There are a number of strategies that you can try to improve your abilities. Listening skills include paying attention, acknowledging the speaker, and checking for understanding. A prerequisite to active listening is eliminating distractions during the conversation, such as cell phones, noises, and other interference.
However, becoming a good listener is about more than following a specific checklist. Joel Peterson of JetBlue drove home an oft lost point about good listening: “When you have your own agenda when you’re listening to someone, what you’re doing is you’re formulating your response rather than processing what the other person is saying.”
If your mind and attention are not engaged, you may miss everything the speaker said. This is the difference between hearing what is said versus listening to what is said. Hearing is the physical ability to hear sound, but listening is actively processing what you’re receiving and responding appropriately.
Mindfulness in Conversation
You can be ready to make eye-contact and nod your head to show active acknowledgement – both good listening practices – but you can’t achieve good listening without being mindful of the way you are entering the conversation more broadly. Have you already formulated your conclusions about what the other person has said? Are you prematurely honed in on a rigid perception of your interests and how you want to pursue them as you enter the conversation? Do you have personal trigger points with the person across the table? Perhaps an earlier conflict or a personal edge to your relationship? Any of these factors could impact who you are as a listener, and will require an extra layer of reflectivity to keep the space open for good listening.
Multitasking has become the norm these days but doing multiple things at once is partially responsible for making it more difficult to focus and be present in the moment. One strategy to enhance mindfulness is to commit to the conversation. Get distractions out of the way and consciously focus on the speaker. By doing so, you will indicate to them that you’re attentively listening and they will feel engaged and valued.
Practice being aware of your body language while you’re in a conversation. While listening, do you nod a lot? Do you hide your hands, allow your gaze to wander, or stare at the speaker too much? Becoming aware of what your body language communicates to others helps you to not only become a more effective communicator, but also a more effective listener. By helping the speaker feel that you’re truly listening and engaged, you facilitate trust and better communication.
Finally, be aware of your own thoughts. If you have a habit of rambling or speaking over others by accident, practice listening to yourself and becoming aware of your own thoughts. If you hear yourself repeating ideas, rein in your flow and have a transition in mind, such as asking the other person what they think. Not only do you end your rambling and dominance of the conversation, but you open up the flow to the other person and ask for their opinion or ideas, indicating that you value both.
As I emphasized in an earlier post on inquiry and reflective listening for leaders, listening is a complex three-part process that includes receiving, attending to and responding to oral and visual stimuli. It takes reflective awareness of all of those “moments” in the listening process to truly be a good listener. Exploring a nuanced understanding of dialogue can then build on how that good listening manifests in the broader context of communication processes.
Ultimately, there are unlimited possibilities for improving good listening on a technical level, but Peterson gives us an eloquently simple and genuine place to start: exercising a true interest in what your counterpart has to say. Get into their world. This is where the trust comes from. Any agenda will need to wait.
Developing trust and using good listening skills are critical to developing conflict solutions in mediation. If you are only hearing rather than listening, you may miss crucial information from the person you’re speaking with or misunderstand entirely what they’re saying. This may lead to a new conflict or an inability to resolve a prior conflict. For managers, listening is an especially critical skill in assisting team members with problems or conflicts. Becoming aware of how your own communication style and listening skills impact your ability to resolve a conflict may help in improving your workplace relationships in the future.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. An expert in dispute resolution and mediation, Ms. Kandell is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She has been a leader in the Montgomery County Bar Association and the Maryland Council for Dispute Resolution. She provides mediation services, group facilitation, neutral evaluation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.