Thursday, September 15, 2011

How to Become a Better Listener

This is my first post as a "communicator" as opposed to a "foodie."  Being a foodie is a much more comfortable role for me because what I lack in communication, I make up for in photographs.  I know that I will inadvertently incorporate food into my posts, so bear with me.

My dad is a resigned Gifted Education teacher and started every one of his classes with a requirement for each of his students to find a quote on the Internet and read it out loud to the rest of the class.  Not only did it get discussion flowing, but every once in a while a student would throw in a controversial quote or another student would disagree with a quote and it would case a debate.  Those were my favorite days.  So, in honor of my dad, I'm going to start my first "What Katie's Communicating" post out with a quote.

Ernest Hemingway

I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.

As true as I think this quote is, I am sometimes guilty of not listening.  Aren't we all, though?  The other day, one of my professors talked about "people who wait anxiously for the other person in the conversation to pause so they can talk about themselves."  My immediate thought was, "I hate when people do that," and my following thought was "I do that sometimes."  How many of you know people like that?  I know I certainly do.  But how many of you do that yourselves?  I know I certainly do that on occasion, too.  

So, for those of you who are the "most people" that Hemingway is talking about, and for those of you reading this and denying that you're occasionally one of those people, but you really are (aka me), I found a great article written by Dumb Little Man to help us all out:

  1. Remove All Distractions
    In this day and age, in our quest to get as much done as we can, we multi-task the whole time - from web browsing, checking emails, replying emails, working, talking on the phone, fiddling with our phones, writing in our notebooks, etc. So when people approach us to talk, it's natural we add that to the list of things we're doing at the moment, vs. giving them our full attention.

    To be honest, I do this myself, especially if it's just a short or casual conversation. I think it's fine if you're able to attend to the other party's request. However, if the person is trying to tell you something important, or share something personal, you should ideally stop what you are doing and give him/her your full attention. What I do is I close the lid of my laptop (hence eliminating all distractions), turn myself towards the person and give him/her my full focus. Doing so is a sign of respecting him/her.
  2. Be Present
    Are you present when you're around other people? Or are you lost in your own thoughts?

    In the example I shared in the opening, it was apparent my friend was not present during the conversations. Even though she would nod as a sign of acknowledgement while others were speaking, her mind was lost in her thoughts. Hence, when it was her turn to speak, her comments would be off tangent to what was being communicated.

    To be a good listener, you have to be present. Being present means (a) not being preoccupied physically (b) not being preoccupied mentally. The former means to remove distractions, as I mentioned in Tip #1. The latter requires you to clear your mind of other thoughts and focus on the person speaking. This means to stop thinking about the argument you had at work with your co-worker in the morning, the report you've yet to finish, or where you're going to have your dinner, and to pay attention to what's being communicated now.

    How does one become more present? I see it as an ongoing path, rather than one end goal. One activity that never fails me is this 15 minute brain dumping exercise, whereby I clear out mental clutter instantly. Meditation is another useful habit that helps me to be more present - instead of thinking about the past or the future, I'll be in the current moment, which is the moment we are living in anyway.
  3. Wait for the Person to Finish Speaking (in the start)
    It's good etiquette to let the other party finish what he/she wants to say, before you butt in with your comments. I know there are times you feel you get what the person is trying to say and you can't wait to share your comments, but hold it off in the beginning of the conversation. Because the person may have other things to share but can't because you are speaking.

    I find that often times when I just sit and wait, the person will often have something to add on - which I would never have known if I had interjected or stepped in to speak. Once I get a hang of what the person has to say and where the person is coming from, I'll be more open in interjecting, while being conscious of the person's needs and letting him/her go ahead if there's anything he/she wants to say.
  4. Don't Assume Anything
    An important part of listening is not to assume. When you assume, you automatically layer over what the person says with your presumptions, which makes it near impossible to have any meaningful conversation. While the person may say A, ultimately you can only hear B, simply because your mind is not open to receiving new information in the first place.

    When it comes to communication, err on the side of safety and assume you know nothing. In this regard, questions are your best friends (see #7).
  5. Look at the Sub-Text
    Powerful listening requires you to understand that the words articulated in a conversation do not always represent the person's intentions. Many times, we are not 100% clear about what we're trying to say, and talking is really our way of processing our thoughts.

    In this regard, don't rely too much on the words communicated, per se. Instead, look at the sub-text - such as the facial expressions of the person, the tone of the voice, the body language, the choice of words, and so on. What is the person trying to say? What do you think he/she is feeling? What is he/she thinking behind his/her words? Combine this with what he/she is saying to you and you'll get a lot more out of the conversation.
  6. Clarify to ensure you got what the person is saying
    At every stage of the conversation, clarify to ensure you got the message right. This can be done by simply paraphrasing what he/she just said, in your own words. Sometimes we may take away one message when it's really something else, and it's not good to assume without clarifying first (see #4).

    What I do is I'd interject every now and then and make 1-2 clarifying statements, such as "Ok, so what you're saying is that ..........., right?", in which the person simply needs to say "Yes" or "No". This helps ensure everyone is on the same page before any more new information is shared.
  7. Ask Questions
    Questions are highly important in any conversation. Firstly, there are things which the person does not share (either because he/she thinks you already know them or because he/she thinks they are irrelevant) that you can only uncover by asking questions. Secondly, questions lets you get more information about specific areas you are unclear about, such that you get a better picture of what the person is saying.

    My conversing style involves a lot of questions, especially at the beginning of the conversation. This is because because I see this as the "understanding" or "information gathering" phase. Rather than overshare at the start, I prefer to understand the person and get a good grasp of who he/she is, then share my point of view. This has worked very well in my communications with others, as others quickly ease into their natural persona and open up about what they want to talk about. Because of this, it has allowed me to easily connect with others and develop meaningful relationships - which is what we want to achieve at the end of the day.

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