Listen Like Your Life Depended Upon It. It Does.

How would the people in your life describe your listening?

Would they say that you listen intently to really understand what they are thinking and feeling? Or would they say that you listen for the silent spots so you can jump in and share your own thoughts?

The research indicates that poor listening is extremely common. In fact, the average person is only tuned in or listening about 25% of the time.

It’s true in the workplace. One study asked several thousand workers to identify the most serious fault observed in executives. The most frequently cited fault, mentioned by 68% of the respondents, was the boss’ failure to listen.

It’s also true in personal relationships. If you observe a dating couple, you will be struck by their excellent listening skills and apparent caring. The same couple, however, five years into their marriage, may exhibit little in the way of good listening behaviors. One person might be checking text messages or watching television while the other one is speaking.

Bottom line? Without excellent listening skills, you cannot have a highly productive team or a healthy relationship.

But the good news is you CAN dramatically improve your listening with these life hacks.

► 1. Decide to listen.

I will often ask my audience this question: How many of you could instantly improve your listening if you just decided in advance to really hear the other person out? All the hands go up.

So it’s obvious that good listening starts with your conscious decision to do so.

I remember one mother who sternly instructed her son Josh to listen to the children’s sermon in church instead of goofing off. It worked.

The assistant pastor asked the kids, “What is gray, has a bushy tail, and gathers nuts in the fall?” Five-year old Josh raised his hand. He said, “I know the answer should be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”

So right before you enter a conversation, make a decision. Decide to listen.

► 2. Listen for something you can use.

Some poor listeners excuse their behavior by saying the other person is boring or their input is worthless. But I prefer the way British author Lord Chesterton put it. He said, “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”

To combat the urge to tune out, look for the HVM, the high value moment. You never know the precise moment an important fact or idea will be presented by someone, but there will almost always be one.

Try this. Whenever you’re interacting with someone, keep asking yourself, “What is this person saying that I can use?” There’s real listening power in that three-letter word.

One of my Boeing clients, Sherm Jaffee, teaches upcoming leaders how to do that. Before a meeting begins, he places a list of questions on the tables in the room. He instructs his colleagues to pick up the sheet and pick out some questions to ask the others at their table … looking for something they can use.

The technique works beautifully. His upcoming leaders love it because they are not only polishing their listening skills, they’re also building teamwork.

Here are the questions Sherm Jaffee put on their tables the last time I spoke to his group of upcoming leaders.

  • Share a funny experience that you were involved in.
  • Share your plans for your next big vacation.
  • Explain how long you have been working in this organization and what your job/role is.
  • Explain what you like most about working for Boeing and why.
  • Share one of your career goals.
  • What do you look for in a mentor?
  • Explain the old adage, “Work creates luck.”
  • Coach John Wooden said, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” What did he mean? How does it apply to you?
  • What historic figure would you compare yourself to? Why?

Whenever you’re listening to someone, look for something you can use.

► 3. Lean forward.

The more you physically position yourself to listen, the more you will listen. In effect, your body is saying, “I’m ready to listen. So go ahead. Give it to me.”

So lean towards the speaker, whether in person or on a virtual call. When you lean in you listen in … more effectively.

► 4. Look at the speaker.

If you look anywhere else, your mind will tend to drift in that direction. And your listening effectiveness goes way down.

For some of you, that might mean you need to put aside distractions. Anything that tempts you to look away from the speaker. That may include trying to send a text message at same time you’re listening to your colleague. Or it may mean you need to stop looking at your phone when your spouse is talking to you.

Keep your eyes on the speaker and your listening will instantly improve.

► 5. Remove physical barriers.

When there’s some “things” between you and the other person, listening can become more difficult. If you’re on a job site, for example, and there’s a piece of equipment between you and the other person, it will be harder to hear as well as pay attention.

Or if there’s a desk between you and somebody else, the desk may imply that one person is “above” the other, and that kind of discomfort will not help the listening process. One researcher found that only 11% of patients are at ease when the doctor sits behind a desk, but 55% of the patients are at ease when the desk is removed.

The physical barrier might be your hearing. If you can’t easily and clearly hear what is being said, all the listening skills in the world won’t do you much good. If you’ve got a hearing problem and something can be done about it, do it. It’s something that everyone in your life will appreciate.

Casey Stengel had to learn that. As the grand old man of baseball, he turned up in Florida one winter wearing a brand-new hearing aid. When someone asked him about it, he replied it was the best hearing aid on the market and it cost him $1500.

“My,” said the questioner. “That must be a good one. What kind is it?”

“Half past four,” replied Casey, glancing at his watch.

Final Thought: Listen as though your life, your job, and your marriage depended upon it. They actually do, more than you might imagine.