News & Expert Interviews

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Tips for Active Listening

Dr. Tracy Peterson Turner is an expert in both written and verbal communication. She knows – and clearly communicates – the traps most professionals fall in to when attempting to communicate with those in their work environments. She provides her clients with clear, specific, and proven strategies to avoid those traps while projecting a credible and professional image.
1) How do you define active listening?

Active listening means fully engaging with the speaker. In other words, to listen actively I must suspend my desire to multi-task with my brain. Rather than “listening” to what you are saying while at the same time composing my response in my brain, I must tune in to every word you say and every nuance and movement with which you say it. This is very difficult to do; but when we are able to fully engage and listen with all our senses, the more we are able to connect with the speaker. The more we connect with the speaker and the message, the better able we are to build a relationship with them.

2) What are the benefits of active listening?
When you think about the definition of active listening I gave above, can you recall the last time you felt fully listened to? Most of the time we get a sense in our busy culture that people are “listening” to us while multi-tasking in their brains about the other stuff they need to be doing. Consequently, we don’t get a sense of being fully heard. We have to ask ourselves, do we like that feeling? If the answer is no, then that’s our motivation for learning to listen actively to others.

While most people think they are good listeners, in reality they are really just good hearers – they hear the words and make the appropriate faces, but they aren’t really listening with all their senses to what is being said.

The benefits of active listening are many:
  • By listening actively, we create an opportunity to build a relationship with another person – at a deeper level. What people like most is the sound of their own voices; to give them an opportunity to talk while we fully engage in listening is to give them a gift they rarely receive.
  • By listening actively, we have an opportunity to learn. When we listen half heartedly, we miss opportunities to learn – about subjects, people, nuances of conversation, body language, etc. By really listening – and suspending our desire and compulsion to multi-task with our brains – we just might learn something we can use later on.
  • By listening actively, we separate ourselves from the majority of the population. Active listening is a skill. Not many people have the skill, and too few use it if they do have it.

3) What ratio of listening to speaking do you suggest, and why?
You’ve heard the adage “You were given two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionally.” I don’t know whether the adage is true, but the concept is a good one. We can’t listen if we are speaking – or preparing to speak in our minds. Listening more and speaking less is critical to building those relationships, learning, and cultivating the art of listening. Besides, people are often so thrilled with the opportunity to speak and be heard that they will give us details we wouldn’t get any other way (another benefit).

4) What phrases can you use to encourage people to keep talking?
Some of the phrases I use are:
  • Tell me more about… (something related to what they were just saying)
  • How did you feel when…
  • How would you like to have…
  • How would you handle a situation like…
Practice using any phrase that elicits something more than a “yes” or “no” response.

People who aren’t accustomed to being listened to will be reluctant at first. Don’t expect to have a thrilling conversation when you first put your new active listening skills to work. Most of us are used to people asking platitude type questions – questions they ask out of politeness but without sincerity in wanting a response (“How are you?” for example). It will take time to get people to understand that you really DO want to hear what they have to say, so keep practicing.

5) How can you tactfully end a conversation?
A consequence of being a good active listener is that people will keep talking. While that’s good, it also can impact your time; so you must have some ways to extricate yourself from lengthy conversations. Here are some ways to do that:

If you know the conversation might turn into a lengthy one, but you still want to ask a question or practice your active listening skills – tell the person up front that you only have a few minutes to talk. For example, “Good morning, Jane. I’ve got about 5 minutes before I have to get to a meeting. Tell me, how do you think the meeting went this morning?”
If you want to pursue the conversation at a later time, say “I’m really enjoying finding out more about XYZ. Do you have some time for us to continue this conversation at 4 today? I’ll stop by then.” The key here is that if you set a later date to continue the conversation you must show up! Otherwise the relationship you’ve built will be damaged.
Another way out is to say something along the lines of “Jane, I can tell you know a lot about this topic. I’d love to hear more, but right now I’ve got to finish that project I’ve been working on.”

Of course, adding your own flair and personality will make these exits more comfortable to you.

6) What tips do you have for improving active listening skills?
Active listening takes practice and concentration; the returns you’ll receive are well worth the investment of effort. Here are some additional strategies to help you as you develop your skills:
  • Do choose the times to practice your skills carefully. In other words, make sure you have the time for a conversation before you start one.
  • Do remove any distractions. For example, move away from your computer screen so you won’t be tempted to check your email while attempting to listen actively.
  • Do concentrate on focusing on what the person is saying and how they are saying it (tone, nuances, word choice, and body language). Using all of your senses and all of their input will help you stay connected.
  • Don’t glance at your watch or the clock. Doing so will effectively shut down the conversation because the watch-glancing indicates loss of interest.
  • Don’t be discouraged if you find your mind wandering while you are attempting to listen actively. You are in the process of retraining your brain, so expect that listening actively will be a skill acquired and improved upon over time.
Related Articles:
Communicating Professionally by Tracy Peterson-Turner
Communication Tips by Susan Fee
Developing Leadership Skills by Megan Tough

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