Monday, August 24, 2015

Being a Good Listener Is Hard - 3 Things That Will Make a Difference

I've said it countless times: "Practically nobody is a good listener."

While this is true, it makes me think: I've got to stop saying this. It has a tone of condemnation.

Because I know most people would like to be better listeners. The benefits are enormous. What you find out! The amazing way it strengthens relationships. And yes, because you've been burned so many times by being a lousy listener.

But realistically, listening well is hard. There are reasons for this.

One reason is that people don't make it easy for you to listen well. They ramble, giving voice to everything in their head. They don't get to the point. Often they aren't sure themselves what point they want to make. They just feel like venting. They repeat themselves. They use indefinite pronouns such as "it" and "this" and you have to guess what they're talking about. They mention the names of people you don't know. They change the subject. They start their story at the middle, skip to the end and omit the beginning. For reasons of their own, they leave out certain key facts. They push your emotional buttons.

You know what I'm talking about.

Then there are the distractions. Your brain can pay attention to only one thing at a time. If you glance at your smartphone, notice an unusual bird outside your window, catch the lyrics of an oldie-but-goodie on the radio, your attention will shift away from the speaker and for those moments you will no longer be conscious of what the person is saying.

Likewise there's all that stuff going on in your head. You think about something you've got to do. Something about what you're hearing triggers a memory. You start planning what you want to say back. The person says something that annoys you or offends you and you feel irritated, even angry. Same principle. If you shift your attention to any of this stuff, it will cause you to miss some of what the person is saying.

You know what I'm talking about.

Maybe you know how to be a good listener. Maybe you attended the course, saw the video, read the book. You know what to do.

But there's a good reason why you don't listen that way. Nobody taught you how to listen well when you were young. When people talked to you, you just reacted the way everybody else did. You only partially paid attention, continuing to do whatever you were doing. When you disagreed, you interrupted to offer your own opinions. You criticized what they were saying. You argued, debated, tried to convince people how wrong they were. When somebody talked about a problem, you jumped in with your advice. Or you just ignored the other person.

Now, 40 years later, these old listening habits are hardwired. These are the behaviors that kick in automatically, before you can stop yourself and consciously try to do what the experts have encouraged you to do.

You know what I'm talking about. Listening is hard, man.

But if you really do appreciate the benefits of listening well and you really do want to listen effectively more often, here are three things you can do that will set you up for more success.

1. Adopt a "listening mindset." I'm talking about a pro-listening attitude that goes something like this: I need to appreciate that the other person's thoughts and feelings are important to me, so when she tries to tell me something, rather than reacting negatively or assuming I understand, I check to be sure I actually get the message.

I recommend that you memorize this. It probably won't pop into your head unless you do.

2. Consciously try to recognize "listening moments." There's a difference between conversation and listening. Conversation is cool, you just enjoy being with the other person, sharing your experiences, thoughts and opinions. However When you're listening, you're consciously trying to grasp what the other person is getting at. Yes, this is challenging, but when you know you should be listening, getting the message is your goal.

3. Memorize the steps of effective listening. How can you consciously listen the way experts say you should if you've forgotten what to do? After you sense that this is a "listening moment" do this:

  • Give the person your undivided attention. Block out stuff going on in your head or in your environment
  • Listen for the meaning. Sort through the nonverbals and all the words to find "the point."
  • Check what you think you understood. Say back in your own words the point you believe they're trying to make
  • Encourage the person to continue talking. You want to hear the whole story so you can keep checking the message and get to the bottom of it.

Yes, it's hard to be a good listener. I think it's hard because our old habits kick in before we have the presence of mind to do anything else.

It doesn't do any good to know what to do if you're not doing it. I believe if you set yourself up to listen well - bring a listening mindset to your encounters, recognize listening moments when they happen, and have the four steps of effective listening burned into your brain so you don't have to struggle to remember what you should do - you'll have a better chance of pulling it off, no matter how much is working against you.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2015. Building Personal Strength .

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