Listening isn’t the simple act of hearing.
Truly listening requires curiosity, inquiry, and connecting with the speaker in some way.
Ever find yourself only half listening or mentally focused on what you’re thinking instead of what the other person is saying? It’s perfectly normal to do that periodically. At issue is the frequency of tuning out, your awareness of it happening, and your ability to course-correct appropriately.
To me, it’s the auditory version of reading – and realizing you have no idea what was written in the last paragraph or page. In that situation, you can go back and re-read the section where your brain disengaged. It’s pretty awkward, however, to ask the speaker to repeat something because you weren’t listening!
Becoming more conscious of when you tune out or stop listening is challenging. The awareness happens after the fact, too late to fix on the fly. If you aspire to be a deeper listener, think about how to gain insights from those gaps. That is how to better understand your patterns and avoid missteps before they occur.
As a starting point, consider whether any of these scenarios ring true for you:
- Do you tune out when you disagree with what’s being said?
- Does it happen when you don’t fully understand the information being shared?
- Perhaps – and it happens – you just don’t care about what’s being said.
Once you know why you tune out, here are three ways to address the problem:
Seek to Understand
You are not listening – or striving to understand – when you’ve checked out of the conversation because you disagree. In fact, intended or not, you have dismissed what’s being said. You’re not listening when you’re waiting for a pause so you can tell the other person how wrong they are or eagerly show all that you know. So, strive to drop the judgment and set aside the need to “be right”. Seek to understand. Then, take a moment to decide whether to respond. If the answer is yes, determine what is important to say based on what the other person has shared and the motivations and values they reveal. The more you understand, the more effectively you can engage in good faith.
When you are waiting to break into the conversation, it’s often because you don’t think they are “getting it”. In that same moment, you miss a chance to understand their perspective. When you listen, you create an opportunity to acknowledge and validate what you hear even when you don’t agree.
Reach for the Thread
Imagine you are actively listening and trying to understand and appreciate the point of view of the speaker. Suddenly, something just doesn’t compute. Your brain stops in the moment as you try to fit all the pieces together – and they keep talking. Now, you are farther and farther disconnected with what they are saying. What to do?!
Sometimes, you just need to back them up. As a coach, I regularly intrude and ask for clarification or seek to understand how my client jumped from one thread to another. It’s perfectly reasonable to say, “Hey, I think I got separated from you on this point because it didn’t make sense for me. I’d love to go back and clarify that so I’m sure I’m with you as you describe the next parts.”
The art of intruding like this is to use the “I statement.” It’s not that they didn’t make sense – it is that it didn’t make sense to you. You strive to clarify even when you have concrete facts that differ from what was presented. It’s not “You are wrong.” Rather, it’s “Let’s combine our information” to see what is factual and true.
Design the End
If you don’t care what the other person has to say, why are you taking your time and energy (and theirs) to pretend you are listening? Don’t take me wrong. That question isn’t to suggest that you say, “I don’t care what you think.” Instead, consider why they are sharing this information with you – and what you can learn about them.
If it’s truly the despised small talk, you have an opportunity to redirect the conversation toward topics meaningful to you both. It can be some version of, “Thank you for sharing your perspective on that. This project is really important to both of us. I know we have limited time together and I have a few questions for you…” The acknowledgement smooths the transition needed to keep the conversation on a meaningful path.
Ultimately, being an effective listener requires a good faith effort to understand and engage in productive exchange. Active listening gives you more perspective for when you speak.