Do you think listening is overrated? We often behave as if we do. But then we wonder why our intended messages aren’t getting the attention we desire when it’s our turn to present our ideas.
Well, I believe we live in what is largely a reciprocal, tit-for-tat society (whether positive or negative). We all know the old saying “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” right? So, to be great communicators and advocates, it stands to reason that we must first become an outstanding audience for others.
Consider the signs that you are not practicing effective listening.
- Do you typically make a mental judgment about what’s being said before the speaker finishes his or her point?
- Does your mind wander if the speaker doesn’t quickly engage your interest?
- Do you consider it a good time to multitask when someone else is speaking?
- Do you often find yourself rehearsing what you’re going to say next while others are speaking?
You have superhuman behavior if you responded with an emphatic no to all four questions. That’s because it’s actually human nature to do those things. In fact, our mind processes information four times faster than the other person can verbalize it, according to scientific research. So, it’s natural to get ahead of the speaker mentally. But, if we’re not careful, we will process something different than they intended. That is why we must actively decide to listen effectively and shut out distractions.
Here are a few tips to get you started.
Give the speaker your full attention. To minimize distractions, don’t multitask. Multitasking makes the person think you’re disinterested or too busy for them.
Focus on the content, not the person. Don’t let the person’s personality, your previous associations with that person, their poor or odd speaking voice or their appearance get in the way of the substance. Try to focus all of your attention on the message itself. You never know who, what, when or where a good idea will come from.
Participate without interrupting. We all know how it feels when someone interrupts our flow of speaking or when they try to finish our thought for us. So, practice patience when others are speaking. You may think interrupting is an innocent habit. You may even think interrupting shows your interest or agreement. But, if done regularly, it may show disinterest and impatience. Instead, provide positive nonverbal feedback (e.g., making eye contact, nodding, etc.) and jump in where appropriate. Every speaker has to take a breath at some point.
Stop rehearsing your response while the other person is still speaking. Listening just long enough to get the gist and then rehearsing your response can be a natural tendency. And, if you think you disagree with the person, you may become impatient with their perspective and stop focusing. But, if you continue to listen, you might just find there’s not as much disagreement or maybe none at all. So don’t rush to judgment. And if you know what you are talking about, there’s no need to rehearse. Practice really doesn’t make perfect.
Watch your body language. Your eye contact, body movements, posture and even breathing indicate your level of attentiveness.
We will get back to in-person meetings. And when we do, choose a good place to sit just like you do at the movies. This may sound simple but it actually helps us to stay focused. And a prominent seating position makes you look interested in what the speaker has to say.
What does it really mean to listen and why should we strive to be better listeners? It means we have made an active, concerted effort to hear and to understand. Importantly, the act of sincere listening sets the stage for better relationships and more effective collaborations.
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Shirley A. Jones, Esq. is a Senior Executive Service (SES) member in the federal government and a certified leadership and diversity and inclusion trainer. Considering herself an employee advocate and a career development trainer, she was recently elected National President of Blacks In Government (BIG). Ms. Jones has had the opportunity to testify before Congress on the lack of diversity in the SES and frequently speaks at events in the Washington, D.C., area. She often addresses a variety of topics related to leadership and empowerment. Ms. Jones has also written Op-Ed pieces for the historic AFRO newspaper, HBCU Connect and other publications.