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We don't listen, we reload

Good listening is key to all kinds of things -- understanding what's being asked (and what isn't), building relationships and trust, and basically getting anything done. So why do so many of us have so much room for improvement? Below are some suggestions for things you can start or stop doing to make yourself a better listener.

Stop interrupting

Waaaaay back in the day, Epictetus (the Greek philosopher) said, "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." This one seems pretty obvious, but for committed interrupters (like myself) quitting the habit actually a lot harder than it seems. (Just ask my husband, who I interrupt at least three times a day, which is down from about 647 before he complained.)

Extraverts, who get their energy from other people and the world around them, are much more likely to interrupt others out of a shared energy and enthusiasm. Introverts, however, generally prefer to finish a whole thought without being interrupted. (See my husband, above.) For extraverts, catching yourself interrupting can be difficult -- it can be both hard to know when you're doing it and challenging to stop, especially if you don't get clear feedback from others who would really prefer you knock it off. It's worth asking those close to you whether your interrupting is frustrating, and, if you're up for it, asking for feedback when you do it.

The main advantage of not interrupting is that you get more information out of the other person and, if you can let them get their whole thought out, sometimes they can solve their own problems. Which leads me to...

Encourage others to finish

Don't rush to fill a void in your conversation with your own voice. Instead, try to get comfortable with surprisingly long silences -- if it's helpful, you can imagine it as a game of chicken or a staring contest, but for silence. If simply waiting for others to talk doesn't work, you can use prompts to get them to say more. Consider:

  • "Tell me more"

  • "What else do I need to know?

  • "What haven't we covered?"

  • "Say more about that."

Listen using the right perspective for the situation

Often we listen using one of two opposing perspectives - are we looking to narrow down the information or open up the possibilities? Are we listening to evaluate the information or support the speaker's feelings? Depending on the situation, our stance varies, and it's critical to use the right one.

Critical vs. Empathic Listening

When we want to solve a problem or understand the facts of the situation, we often listen critically. This helps us evaluate the information, gauge its value, form our own opinion of it, and separate facts from opinions. Critical listening is important when there are a lot of feelings in the conversation that are muddying the facts. You might listen critically when you're trying to understand something complex or complicated, or when in an interview, debate, or highly detailed conversation.

When we want to better understand what's going on for the person speaking, we need to listen empathically. This helps support the speaker's feelings, allows them to open up, and feel they can share freely without judgment. Listening this way is less about details and facts, and more about impressions, impacts, and emotional safety.

You can imagine that when someone comes to you crying, you might need to listen critically at first to understand what's going on but then shift to listening empathically once you know the problem. Or that you might want to start by listening empathically to get the speaker to open up and then, once they're talking and feeling comfortable, switch to listening critically so you can diagnose what's going on.

Reductive vs. Expansive Listening

Reductive listening is about reducing the "noise" in the conversation and listening for the bottom line. When we listen this way, we want the speaker to get to the point and let us know what’s needed. It narrows down to what’s relevant, and it disregards everything that’s (perceived as) not relevant. As you can imagine, it's a perspective often employed when the listener is in a rush. It’s an important type of listening, but it can leave a speaker feeling frustrated or unappreciated if we are too anxious to get to that bottom line.

Expansive listening is listening with someone, listening with compassion, curiosity, and patience. In this type of listening, the listening is the point. This is creative listening, chatting for the sake of connection, brainstorming, or simply listening without an agenda. Expansive listening may do nothing more than help create trust and goodwill between communicators, but isn't that an end in itself?

When you combine critical listening with reductive listening, you miss out on the nuance and impact of the person speaking. When you listen empathically and expansively, you may not be solving any problems. Both of these are fine -- the key is using the right mix of perspectives for the situation and not simply relying on your default perspective.

If you need help becoming a better listener, I'm always happy to help! Book a free sample session and we can set some powerful goals to become a better listener.

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