27 September 2023

The real secrets of being a good listener

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Michelle Bakjac* considers a series of listening skills which, if fully developed, can lead to more productive and empathetic conversations.

We may have learned that we need to let people speak without interrupting, but taking turns talking does not truly denote listening.

Unintentionally hijacking conversations to advise, inject humour, empathise, or prioritise efficiency, is often done with good intentions, but may instead disrupt the human connection we think we’re forging.

Recognising when to shift out of our habitual styles and consciously apply alternative styles of listening and responding may allow for more effective and meaningful interactions.

A good manager knows that listening is important, but too few people know how to listen well.

Even common techniques, like ‘active listening’ can be counterproductive.

Merely sharing the amount of speaking time, or parroting back what a speaker said, does not achieve understanding.

Becoming a better listener doesn’t only mean understanding how you listen; it requires taking certain actions, too. Consider the five most important things listeners can do to improve.

Establish why you are listening

There are a myriad of reasons why we listen the way we do — to be efficient, to avoid conflict, to gain attention, to support, or simply to entertain.

When those reasons are repeatedly (and perhaps unconsciously) prioritised, we short-change other listening goals.

When entering a conversation, consider reflecting briefly on what the goals of the conversation are, and how best you can listen in that moment.

Might the speaker be seeking honest critique, an analytical reflection or an emotional connection?

You may not have the bandwidth to fully listen — i.e., we’re surface listening — and should share that with the other person who may be looking for more than you can give in that moment.

Recognise how you usually listen

Your usual listening style may be sabotaging your goals.

You may have received positive feedback for being consistently efficient, funny, articulate, or supportive, but the default style being used may preclude applying different listening styles to achieve other goals.

For example, time-pressured environments often require task-oriented or critical listening styles in order to make rapid decisions.

While that may be consistently effective at work, it may backfire when applied frequently to family and friends who may need something more than rapid decisions.

When expressions of emotion are met with task-oriented or critical listening styles, you may miss valuable opportunities to better understand underlying values and concerns.

In these situations, providing coaching, or false reassurance such as a friendly “you’ll be fine”, can make people feel unheard and discouraged from sharing.

Be aware of who is the focus of attention

Beyond listening styles, the way we insert ourselves into the speaker’s narrative shifts the focus of conversational attention.

We often assume that interjecting with our own personal stories is an empathic and relationship-building move, but it precludes hearing the other’s whole message.

While it can be fun to interject, and is sometimes helpful to promote connection, when done without awareness it runs the risk of steering the conversation away from the speaker without redirecting back.

For example, when doctors interject a personal comment in an empathic attempt to connect, research shows the conversation rarely returns to the patient’s concern.

When a listener is aware of the impact of interjecting and maintains curiosity about the speaker’s message, it is possible to share the focus without losing the speaker’s message through redirecting back to the speaker.

This might be done through sharing a personal thought and then returning the focus.

Colleague A: “I really need a holiday.”

Colleague B: “I just came back from a rustic resort in the mountains, and it was so restorative, but I’m curious why you feel you need the leave, what’s going on with you. Feel like talking?”

Adapt the listening style to achieve conversational goals

With increasing stressors, our executive functioning and cognitive flexibility are taxed, making it harder to adjust from our default listening style.

That’s okay. Staying focused on the speaker and the goals will help you adapt to the needs of the situation.

In a patient expressing fear, responding with validation and curiosity may allow the clinician to capture valuable information and more effectively address the patient’s needs.

Ask: Am I missing something?

It may be hard to ascertain the conversational goals if the speaker who initiates the conversation does not know what they are hoping to get out of it.

Ambiguity about goals, uncertainty about sharing vulnerability, unexamined emotions and logistical pressures may be part of the discovery process.

Because we profoundly shape this process through the ways in which we listen, we should consider whether the conversation at hand seems to be productive and what we may be missing.

Taking a couple of seconds to pause and think before an automatic response may help reveal a subtler, important opportunity.

Resisting the urge to reassure or offer solutions and inviting more detail to better understand what’s behind a fraught statement is a useful analytical listening technique.

Experimenting with how we listen solidifies our active partnership in conversations.

It expands the space for others to reveal what really matters to them and can actually be more efficient if we can get to the heart of the matter more deliberately.

Through intentionally applying new ways to listen, we build relationships, understand others, and collaborate and problem-solve more effectively.

*Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Adelaide-based psychologist, organisational consultant, coach, speaker and facilitator and a Director of Bakjac Consulting. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared on the Bakjac Consulting website.

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