Developing active listening skills is essential to improving your communication skills. How often do you find yourself zoning out or thinking about what to say next during a conversation, instead of listening? If you are anything like me, then the answer is probably everyday, even if it’s just for a few seconds.
This is a normal human behavior, as we have active minds. It’s also the challenge that keeps us from practicing great listening skills. Active listening skills are the foundations for effective communication. The challenge is practicing active listening skills in every important conversation.
Well, let’s start with the two key goals of active listening:
- Make sure you understand the content, nuance, and intentions of what the other person is saying.
- Make sure the other person perceives that you are listening to him or her.
Do you agree with these goals? If so, then active listening is more than just using our ears — we have to be present, we have to process what we heard to make sure we understood it, and we have to let the other person know that we heard them. Here are 4 tips on practicing and improving your active listening skills — today!
Tip #1 Be Confident and Present in the Conversation — Often times, we don’t listen well, not because we don’t want to, but because we are too busy trying to figure out what to say next, and we’re worrying about having something valuable to say. This is due to lack of confidence in ourselves, and a failure to be present with the speaker. When we worry about what to say next, we naturally won’t hear everything the other person is saying, and we’ll fill in the blanks with our own assumptions. This often happens in job interviews — we are so nervous about how to say why we are qualified that we don’t listen, and therefore don’t answer the question that was asked into interview. Obviously, this is counter-productive.
Practice: Do not think about what to say next while you are listening. Think about what you want to say next after the other person has finished speaking. Brief silence is okay in a conversation. You can also say “that’s a great question” to buy time. Also, don’t interrupt the person while they are speaking — that is a sure sign that you are not listening well.
Tip #2: Paraphrase What You Heard — Just because we are listening, doesn’t mean we can assume that we heard the other person correctly. This is where paraphrasing is important. Paraphrasing is repeating back in our own words (not verbatim) what the person said. Repeating what they said in our own words will demonstrate that we heard them, processed what they said, and are taking some time to make sure we are on the same page before moving forward.
Practice: After the person has finished talking, you can say something like “If i understood you correctly, you are asking me x y z. Is that right?…Let me see if I understood this correctly — are you saying x y z?” Wait for the person to nod or correct you before answering the question, or making comments about the statement.
Tip #3: Ask Specific Questions to Clarify — Another way to make sure we heard correctly and show we are listening is to ask specific questions when something we heard is unclear. This is not about saying ” I didn’t hear you. Can you repeat that?” No one wants to repeat everything they just said. Instead, we want to paraphrase what we did understand, and then ask a question about what we didn’t understand. It’s always better to ask questions than to assume that we know what they’re talking about.
Practice: Do not pretend to understand something when you don’t. You may think you are saving face or looking smart, but you won’t seem so smart in the long run. Instead, ask the person to clarify the part you didn’t get, after they are done speaking.
Tip #4: Show Non-Verbal Active Listening — Lastly, listening is also about sending the right non-verbal cues. People react to non-verbal cues as much as words. If we are leaning back, looking at the ceiling, but listening intently, the person still may not feel heard. We have to align our non-verbal cues to show that we are actively listening.
Practice: Lean slightly forward or sit in a neutral position when listening. Look interested. Don’t have your hands folded in front of your chest (even if the person you are speaking with is) – Keep your hands by your side or on the table. Make eye contact appropriately as you listen. Nod your head at times as you listen.
The above concepts are easy to understand. The challenge is remembering to practice them in every important conversation. Make a little note for yourself with these 4 tips, and look at them as a reminder before going into a conversation. It’s worth the effort, though — it is only when you are really listening to the other person can you hope to be heard.
Your comments: What is the biggest challenge you face in improving your active listening skills? Any there any other active listening tips you want to add? Add your comments below and let’s have a discussion.
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