Listening can feel at times like a lost art, maybe because we are communicating so much more electronically. That’s too bad, because being a good listener can help you in every aspect of your life – with family and friends, and with your colleagues at work. Want to up your listening game? Here are some tips I’ve learned from conducting hundreds of interviews over a 30-year career in journalism.
Be Fully Present
- Clear your mind
- Turn off your phone (or put it away)
- Turn away from monitors
- React in the moment
- Check email
- Plan your answers in advance
- Think about your upcoming schedule
You know the feeling. You’re talking to someone, and you can tell from their body language and distant look in their eye that the person is not really listening to you. You realize they’re more interested in an audience than a conversation, so they’re simply waiting for you to stop talking so that they can talk.
Distracted listening may not be as dangerous as distracted driving, but it’s a big problem. Our cellphones are constantly tugging at our attention, pulling our brains out of the moment — who is reaching out to me and what do they want? — creating a subtle shift in the conversation. (The other person, consciously or subconsciously, knows you’ve tuned out.) The same thing happens on phone calls, too. You can almost always tell if someone is checking their email or doing something else when you’re talking to them (brief lags in their responses are a giveaway).
Clear Your Mind
Many of the 525 leaders I interviewed for the Corner Office office column for The New York Times shared memorable stories and smart insights about the importance of listening – a lesson that many of them said they learned the hard way.
Think of listening as a form of meditation. You have to clear your mind of everything else, so you can focus entirely on what the other person is saying. Make sure your phone is off or away from you. If you’re at your desk, turn off your monitor or turn your chair around so you’re not distracted by the screen. Try to focus fully on the other person, pushing away the thoughts about the next meeting you have to go to or a looming deadline.
“When you have a conversation with somebody, you’re not going to get the nuances of the conversation if you’re doing too many things,” said Michael Mathieu, now the C.E.O. of BeAlive Media. “If somebody picks up the phone, stop your email, stop what you’re doing, listen and have that conversation with the person and then move on. I try to be present so I can enjoy the richness and quality of interactions with people. Most people can’t multitask without losing something in each of those tasks.”
The Improv Approach
If meditation isn’t your thing, use this trick: Pretend you’re doing improv, and that you can only react in the moment to what the other person is saying, rather than planning out the next three steps in the conversation. Mark Fuller, the C.E.O. of Wet Design, which makes elaborate fountain installations like the one in front the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, hired an improv instructor at his company to help everyone be better listeners.
Mr. Fuller’s logic: “Improv, if properly taught, is really about listening to the other person, because there’s no script. It’s about responding. If you think about it, if you have an argument with your wife or husband, most of the time people are just waiting for the other person to finish so they can say what they’re waiting to say. So usually they’re these serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening. That doesn’t work in improv. If we’re on the stage, I don’t know what goofball thing you’re going to say, so I can’t be planning anything. I have to really be listening to you so I can make an intelligent — humorous or not — response.”
The best kind of listening is about being comfortable not knowing what you’re going to say next, or what question you might ask. Trust that you’ll think of something in the moment based on what the other person just said. That will send a powerful signal to the other person that you’re truly listening to them.