Most of us use our ears every day of our lives. We listen to sounds, music, and speech without a second thought, and it’s a skill we don’t often think to improve. But in the interpersonal arena of business, mastery of listening can be a powerful asset in our ability to work well with others.
It’s not about having a better pair of headphones (although that might help). And it’s not just about hearing the words people are saying - there's much more to be inferred from each conversation we have.
If you’re really listening to someone, you’ll pick up on details. You’ll be able to spot when you’re being hoodwinked, or find openings to lead the conversation the way you want. You’ll be able to figure out what your conversation partner really wants - whether that’s help with something, a secret you’re keeping, or just a shoulder to cry on. In business, all of these scenarios are possible, so you’d do well to be prepared.
As Kate Murphy writes in You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, the real skill comes with having conversational sensitivity:
“People who have conversational sensitivity not only pay attention to spoken words, they also have a knack for picking up hidden meanings and nuances in tone. They are good at recognising power differentials and are quick to distinguish affectation from genuine affection. They remember more of what people say and tend to enjoy, or at least be interested in, the conversation."
So to get more out of your conversations, expand your influence, and work better with your team, you need to start listening. Here are some of the best ways to improve your listening skills.
Look like you’re listening
This isn’t about giving false impressions. It’s about helping colleagues understand that you are listening.
Let’s face it - some people have resting bitch face. Myself included. I could be listening to to the world’s most interesting story, but still look like I'm reading a bus timetable.
Some faces just don’t look enthusiastic, and that’s okay - as long as you learn to live with it. The other person needs to know you’re invested in what they’re saying, and it’s up to you to give that visual feedback. So if your face isn’t doing the work for you, and attempting a wide-eyed stare just looks a bit creepy on you, try another tactic.
A nice combination of eye contact, subtle nodding, and open posture will do the trick. That means avoid crossing your arms and try suppressing any tics that imply you’re losing patience, like tapping your toes or fidgeting.
Either give your full attention or none at all
This leads us to the golden rule for good conversations: put your phone away.
As you'll have undoubtedly experienced, the incessant pings of electronics can be really distracting and really annoying - especially when people are trying to listen to one another. So it's time to turn them off and put them away.
One of the worst offenders for attention-stealing I saw was a friend with a new Apple Watch. We were having a beer at the pub and almost every 30 seconds he’d break eye contact and look down at his wrist because of a vibrating notification. Apparently he had it hooked up to Facebook Messenger which was giving him every single update in a group chat. I made my opinion quite clear - next person to look at their digital device buys the drinks. People like this need to be told!
If you’re anxiously awaiting the buzz of a new message, your attention just isn’t going to be present. Either completely silence your devices (including vibration) or leave the conversation for another time. People can tell when you’re half-arsing it, and while it might not seem that way at the time, you’ll be remembered as being a bit rude and uninterested.
Ask good questions
Simply asking a good question shows you’re interested, which is really all people want when talking to you. Questioning can be a bit of an art.
Unless you’re trying to lead your counterpart to a certain conclusion, open-ended questions are the way to go. Rather than prompting a ‘yes’ or ’no’ answer, ask questions about feelings and opinions to allow them to elaborate on their position with more freedom.
Think of yourself as a bit of a psychiatrist. “And how did that make you feel?” can be a great way to get someone to open up to you and divulge more information than they initially let on. This gives you the opportunity to figure out what they really think, and gives you the opportunity to consider a more nuanced response.
The opposite problem to being uninterested is when you’re too invested in a conversation and can’t shut up. Some topics just get your mind racing and you’re eager to share every thought that comes to you.
But interrupting someone is a great way to derail their train of thought, and it means you’ll miss out on valuable insight that could have been shared.
So if you’re a talker, be conscious of your tendencies and try to keep your thoughts to yourself. Just hold them until you’re given an intentional opportunity to add your opinion (not just when the speaker pauses for breath or a sip of their drink).
Further to that, try to get more comfortable with silence between the both of you. If you’ve got any Finnish friends, they’ll tell you of the social convention between Finns that a moment of silence is not uncomfortable or awkward - it’s welcome. A nice breather for you to meditate on. As Ray Zinn puts it,
"Even when the other person is not talking, communication is still active. Take a breather between questions to give you and the other person time to decompress. This makes your communications less like an interrogation, even if it is a fact-finding mission."