Is anybody listening? With so much going on around us, it can be hard to move from meaningless small talk to honest conversations, but paying close attention to family members, customers and employees is the key to reducing conflict and discovering new ideas. Listening takes focus and concentration, which is typically not a good fit for multitasking and busy schedules. The downside of all the chitchat and clickbait we encounter every day can be that there is no time to talk about the things that really matter. If constant preoccupation makes us too distracted for meaningful conversations, what is the best way to turn down the noise long enough to truly hear someone else? Here are some thoughts about making time for listening:
1. Hearing is not the same as listening
Just because you can physically hear what someone is saying doesn't mean you are actually paying attention and following the other person's logic. This lack of interaction makes the mechanical approach of "active listening" techniques promoted in business leadership so ineffective. "Listening is more than being silent while the other person talks," wrote Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman recently, going on to say:
"In fact, much management advice on listening suggests [...] encouraging listeners to remain quiet, nod and “mm-hmm” encouragingly, and then repeat back to the talker [...] However, recent research [...] suggests that these behaviors fall far short of describing good listening skills."
Because it requires special focus, listening is the conscious decision to set work-related or personal concerns aside.
2. Finding opportunities to listen
Meaningful conversations don't have to be confined to conference rooms or offices. Car rides, walks, or other situations that are typically taken up by talk about the weather are a good chance to ask more profound questions and wait for the answer. Listening doesn't mean you have to provide ready-made solutions. In fact, asking follow-up questions to help the other person probe more deeply into a matter is much better than offering well-worn, trite sentiments. Simply using a few minutes to fully focus on someone else's statements without offering preconceived notions is a powerful human interaction.
3. Staying in control of listening time
It is a common misconception that good listeners have to make themselves available to others at all times. As I've written before, there is no obligation to drop everything for every request of your time. Unless it's an emergency, it is perfectly acceptable to suggest a conversation time that is convenient for you. Not only will you feel less resentful about the intrusion, but you will also be able to arrange the rest of your tasks to accommodate the request. As always, it is a good idea to state how much time you have, and when you will need to wrap up the conversation. Letting the other person know you have half an hour is much more constructive than looking at your watch and sighing.
4. Choose low-productivity hours for longer conversations
Good listening takes some planning because it is difficult to abruptly start and end a deeper exchange. If you are busy (and who isn't?) you are under no obligation to spend your key productive hours, such as morning hours, in personal conversations. Other times of the day, such as afternoon or evening hours, are better suited because you will have completed your most important work tasks and will not feel worried about work that still has to be done.
The most common distraction from fully listening is focusing on what you want to say when the other person stops talking, a psychologist friend wrote recently. Making the time, by conscious planning, to give another person your undivided attention while holding back your own comments is a precious gift we should all give more often.
What have you learned about making the time to listen?
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