Four Steps To Being A Better Listener

“There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”
Lord Chesterton

And lots of people are uninterested a good portion of the time. In fact, research says the untrained listener spends most of his time daydreaming or thinking of the point he wants to make. So it’s no wonder the average listener retains only 25% of what he hears.

Now, sometimes poor listening can be funny… as was the case with little Timmy. Here’s the way his father, a pastor put it.

“While walking along the sidewalk in front of his church, the pastor heard the intoning of a prayer that nearly made his collar wilt. Apparently, his five-year-old son Timmy and his playmates had found a dead robin. Feeling that a proper burial should be performed, they had secured a small box and cotton batting, then dug a hole and made ready for the disposal of the deceased. Timmy was chosen to say the appropriate prayers and with adult-like, somber dignity, he said what he thought his father always said: “Glory be unto the Faaaather… and unto the Sonnn… and into the hole he gooooes.”

Certainly, children have to be taught the importance of listening. It’s like the little girl who had just finished her first week of school. “I’m just wasting my time,” she said to her mother. “I can’t read; I can’t write – and they won’t let me talk!”

But adults also have to be taught the importance of good listening. As I said in a previous article, poor listening destroys relationships and lowers productivity. It always costs you something — and sometimes it costs you everything.

So how can you go from being a pathetic, measly, 25% listener to one who gets 75-85-95 or even 100% of what is being said? Try these skills.

=> 1. Decide to listen.

As silly as it sounds, listening starts with a decision. You decide to tune in and really listen — no matter what’s going through your mind or what’s going on in your world.

The mere decision to listen will improve your listening. My audiences are proof of that. I ask them, “How many of you can listen… and listen well… if you want to or have to?” Almost all the hands go up. They admit… that to some extent… they can turn their listening ability on or off. And so can you.

=> 2. Look for the VM of L.

In his fascinating book, “Listening Leaders,” Dr. Manny Steil calls this the “value moment of listening.” He says you never know the precise moment an important fact or idea will be presented by someone… but there will be one. So be on the look out for the VM of L or that “value moment of listening.”

One of my clients, Sherm Jaffee at Boeing teaches upcoming leaders how to do that. Before a meeting even begins, he places a list of questions on the various 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 the VM of L. It’s a skill that every leader — or every potential leader — needs to master.

The technique works beautifully. He helps them polish their listening skills as they build their 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?

* President Calvin Coolidge wrote, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are the omnipotent.” What is he trying to tell us as individuals?

Of course, you may be wondering what to ask. So go ahead and get a copy of my book called “Brave Questions: Building Stronger Relationships By Asking All The Right Questions.” I give you the 400 best questions you can and should be asking at home as well as at work.

Here’s what Stuart Gray, president of 4Remarkable Service, had to say: “I just wanted to let you know what happened after I got your book on ‘Brave Questions.’ First, I used the book to deepen my relationship with my wife. It took us 3.5 hours to complete the first 17 of your 400 questions. WOW! Then on my return trip from the lake, I rode with my 80-year old father-in-law for over 10 hours, and we only completed 3 sets of questions. The knowledge and understanding that I gained of my father-in-law made my wife eager to pursue deeper conversations with him as well — because I know things about her Dad that she is unaware of. Thank you for developing a tool that has helped in deepening my communication.”

And then, in your continuing attempt to improve your listening ability,

=> 3. Concentrate.

Really concentrate. I hate to say it, but concentration is almost an old-fashioned, outdated concept in these days of “multi-tasking.” People almost take pride in doing several things at once rather than concentrating.

Well, multi-tasking may work in some cases, but it never works with listening. When you “half listen” or “sort of listen,” you are guaranteed to miss some things, and some of those things will damage your relationships with your coworkers, customers, and family members.

To concentrate, you’ve got to do several things. You’ve got to resist internal distractions — in other words, block out that nagging problem at home. And you’ve got to block out external distractions, such as that noise coming from across the hallway.

You also need to look at the person you’re talking to. Wandering eyes lead to wondering minds… wondering what was said and what you should say next.

And sit up straight. Poor posture almost always leads to lazy listening — when in reality, good listening is alert and active. It’s a lot of work.

Finally don’t do anything that would break your concentration. Don’t drum your fingers, snap your gum, play with your pen, or do anything other than listen.

=> 4. Ask for reactions.

Of course, some of the time you will be talking in your conversation. And you will want to know how the other person is reacting to what you say. That’s another listening task you have to master.

You could ask such simple things as: “What’s your reaction to what I’ve said?… or… What do you think of what I’ve said?” And then listen carefully to what you hear.

Don’t waste your time trying to guess what the other person is feeling. You might guess wrong. Ask for reactions. It shows that you value her reactions and you are more than willing to listen to what she has to say.

You could also ask about the message the other person received. Sometimes the other person isn’t listening to you that well, and he may distort your message. So try asking, “What’s the message you think I’m trying to get across to you?” He may think you’re communicating disrespect when all you were trying to share was a difference of opinion.

And yes, listening even goes below the surface and beyond the words that are shared. Good listeners listen to the other person’s body language as well. You could say, “Your tone of voice leads me to believe you’re upset with me. I’m interested in learning what’s on your mind. Would you be willing to share that with me?” And then listen to her words as well as her body language.

Action:  The next time you’re in a listening situation, DECIDE to do your best job of listening. And decide the same thing the next time, and the next time, and every time you’re about to listen. That alone will improve your listening ability.