The Art of Listening

August 5, 2009 at 10:38 am Leave a comment

Conversation and ListeningWhen we think of communication we often think of talking or writing or using some medium to send a message out to others. But a good communicator does more than send messages. They master the art of listening. It is their ability to listen well that helps them to know what to talk about, to whom and how.

The benefits of good listening go beyond the obvious learning that can come from paying attention to what someone is saying. By being an engaged listener, one’s own creativity can be ignited. Ideas that might not have otherwise come about are planted and can begin to grow. Listening is also an invaluable way to show how much you care for someone, and can be a very powerful tool when building or nurturing a relationship – personal or professional.

Try out your listening skills the next time you have the chance to have a conversation. Here are five characteristics of a good listener:

Be Present – We’ve all heard this advice before, and most agree with the wisdom of devoting undivided attention to the person you’re talking with. Few, however, actually achieve a genuine state of “being present.” It’s kind of like trying to “think of nothing.” But, in fact, that’s what you need to do in order to be present. Clear your mind completely so that it can be filled with the thoughts and words of the other person. This is not a state of mind that is easily sustained. If you give it some effort – and it does take effort – it is possible.

Listen and Watch for Non-Verbal Cues – To get the most out of what someone is saying, don’t just listen to their words. Notice their body language, the volume and tone of their voice, the pace of their words and phrases. Allow yourself to fully appreciate the person’s mood and attitude. We are often aware of these cues, but don’t necessarily process them fully – kind of like watching a movie while working on a jigsaw puzzle. The reality, though, is that the non-verbal cues do much to embroider and enhance the message, and make it more interesting and relevant.

Engage in the Conversation – This does not mean that you use the other person’s comment as a platform from which you launch into your own story. It does not mean that you jump in and give advice based on your own experience. It does not mean that you try solving their problem or finding a way to dismiss their concern. Engaging in a conversation means that you acknowledge what the other person is saying. Whether it’s an “uh-huh,” or an “Oh my!” or a “Really?” Letting the other person know you’re listening, hearing, and that they have your interest, allows them to continue; to share more information. You might rephrase something they’ve said, as a way of checking your own understanding. Or, even better, you might ask a question that gets them to elaborate.

Resist voicing your own thoughts – this is part of “being present,” and it can be supported by properly engaging in the conversation with comments that are not about yourself. At some point, of course, it is appropriate to state your own opinion or to reference a similar experience of your own as a way of reinforcing what someone is saying. But don’t let that justify taking over the conversation and turning the subject to yourself. The “art” is in keeping the conversation focused on the other person.

Give credit to the storyteller – let the person who has just shared their inner thoughts and feelings know how you were affected. Did you learn something new or useful? Do you see the person differently now that you know this new information? Did they help you change your opinion about something or perhaps inspire you to try something or do something differently?

A good communicator undoubtedly has refined their skill for speaking, writing and crafting compelling messages. But their ability to listen well should be their most refined skill. Remember, there’s a reason we all have two ears and one mouth.


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