On a recent episode of The Apprentice, the head of retail banking at Barclays spoke to the candidates about the importance of listening skills. (Good luck with that particular group). The ability to listen is frequently listed as one of the most desirable ‘soft skills’. It is an essential element of communication. Great leaders are said to be great listeners.
The words ‘expert’ and ‘skills’ suggest that listening is something that can be learnt. They indicate that not everyone is good at this but that that there are practices and strategies which we can work at in order to become ‘expert’.
We tend to use the vocabulary of expertise when we are speaking in professional contexts. We don’t apply this terminology to personal situations, or to other attributes which describe our relationship with people. We don’t say how much we like having a friend who is an expert listener, or an expert empathiser. It sounds rather cold and mechanical. (Although we are used to the phrase ‘parenting skills’. Something to think about there.) In these contexts, we seem to use words like ‘good’ or ‘patient’ or ‘understanding’. They mean the same, really, but they indicate a degree of warmth and a level of connection which ‘expert’ doesn’t suggest.
That rare person, a really great listener, combines skill and soul. This doesn’t imply constant deep-and-meaningfuls, but indicates that good listening comes from knowing what to do and what not to do, what to say and what not to say when you are listening. These are skills which can be learnt. ‘Soul’ indicates that good listening comes from being able to create a genuine and authentic connection with the other person, an ability which can be developed, but which requires commitment, self-knowledge and open-mindedness.
Being a good listener is of course about attending to what the other person is saying. But it begins with you. It begins in your head. Every interaction you have in the course of a day is informed by your perception of the person and the situation. Your emotions, your moods, your thoughts, your prejudices affect the way that you behave and respond. To become a really good listener, the first thing to do is to become aware of the influences which shape your response.
Think about an occasion when you found it very hard to listen to someone. What effect did any of the following have on the conversation?
- Your mood at the time
- Your past history with the other person
- What you think about the person
- How you compare to the other person
- Being uncomfortable with the topic
- Not agreeing with what is being said
- Other things
In spite of these factors, you may have managed to go through the motions of listening. You could have nodded in what might have been the right places. You could have seemed attentive.
But it didn’t really work, did it?
However, you can learn to put aside presumptions and preconceptions and focus on the conversation or interaction.
By just thinking about these matters you are taking some vital steps towards being a fabulous listener and enhancing your relationships at work, at home, in your social life. You will find lots of information and advice back here, and in my book How to Listen.