We all know the importance of listening well in both our professional and our home lives, in fact, the importance of this skill is likely to increase. According to a recent McKinsey study, as the world of work shifts to automation, continuous learning and team-based working, a higher focus will be placed on the need for strong social and emotional skills – and the ability to listen well is at the core of this. Similarly, Mercer’s Global Talent Trends describes the importance of ‘human skills’ in the future workplace, including those skills that aren’t easy to automate, such as listening. However, listening remains an elusive skill – one that most people need to work hard at improving.
So, what is good listening, and what’s the ‘secret’ to getting good at it? According to the International Listening Association, listening is the ‘process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages’. It is complex, and easy to get wrong.
This is what bad listeners do
As early as 1948, researchers identified the characteristics of poor listening – including pretending to pay attention, preparing an answer before hearing the whole message and showing bias. One difficulty is that our brains are trying to do so many different things. We’re picking up physical sounds plus visual cues, decoding them into language, assigning meaning, relating what we’ve heard to what we already know and then evaluating what we think about it all. On top of that, we’re formulating our response, listening out for when we can have our turn to take the floor and share our thoughts.
Are you guilty of ‘fake’ listening?
The internet is full of articles and ‘top tips’ to help improve your listening, and many training courses also include sessions on ‘active listening’. But there’s a problem with many of these articles and approaches – they focus on the ‘micro-behaviours’ of listening such as, the importance of eye contact, the role of verbal encouragement to help the person to keep talking, and paying attention to body language. As people start practicing these skills they end up being so aware of themselves that they lose the ability to think about the speaker and their message. Understanding these behaviours can also lead to people becoming excellent ‘fakers’ – showing all the signs that they’re listening, but without really being present.
You need to want to listen
Great listening doesn’t happen as a result of these micro-behaviours, the main thing about great listening is that you need to feel motivated to do it – you need to want to listen. Consider this – a friend is in trouble, they need a listening ear, someone to understand what they’re going through. You meet up with them and you listen. You probably don’t think about your eye contact, paraphrasing and all of the other micro behaviours, but you probably do listen – because that’s your aim, your purpose and your motivation. You are, to paraphrase Stephen Covey, listening with the intent to understand, rather than the intent to reply.
So, what’s the secret to great listening? Wanting to do it. It’s as simple (and as difficult) as that. So, before going into a meeting or speaking with someone, take some time to think through:
- What is my goal in this meeting?
- How can listening help me to achieve the goal?
- How can I help myself to listen in this way?
- What might stop me from listening and how can I overcome it?
These questions will help you to be more aware of listening and how it can help you. It will also prime your brain, getting you ready to listen because you want to, to listen with intent to understand. With focus on our motivation, we can all improve our listening.