The Extraordinary Power Of Listening

“No man ever listened himself out of a job.”
Calvin Coolidge, U.S. President

Coolidge was right. Many people have lost their jobs, their customers, their best friends or even lost their marriage partners because of some things they have said. But very few people … if any … have lost any of those things because they listened too well.

The problem seems to come from too many people spouting off without taking enough time to listen … to really listen … first. And even though we may have been taught at home or taught in Sunday School to “Be swift to listen and slow to speak,” many of us are guilty of just the opposite. We are swift to speak and slow to listen. It’s a BIG MISTAKE and a major contributor to communication breakdowns and relationship problems.

To make matters worse, most people THINK they are better listeners than they really are. So they don’t bother to improve their listening skills. Another BIG MISTAKE.

However, if you’re one of the more enlightened ones, if you recognize the fact that you could and should improve your listening skills … because it will pay off on the job as well as at home … here are a few ways to do exactly that.

1. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Learn to “see” things from his perspective.

All too often we become frustrated with someone’s lack of cooperation or with someone’s negative attitude. So we get ticked off or lecture them on how they “should” behave … all of which may be unnecessary or even counterproductive … if we just took time to “see” things or “listen” to things from his perspective.

Such was the case with Garrett and his 5-year-old son Brad in a story told by Dr. Denis Waitley in “The Seeds of Greatness.” As they walked through the store that had everything on sale and was filled with wall-to-wall shoppers, Garrett asked, “What is it now?” as his 5-year-old let loose another string of unintelligible cries and wails. Brad just pouted as he held on to his father’s hand while they walked through the store.

Garrett had promised to take Brad to a movie if he behaved well in the store. But ever since they’d arrived, all Brad had done was whine and cling, making it impossible for Garrett to find what he wanted. “I don’t think you’re holding up your end of the bargain, buddy,” said Garrett. “We had a deal. Remember?”

Brad nodded sullenly. And then Garrett noticed Brad’s shoelaces were undone; so he kneeled down to tie them. Brad sniffled and grasped the sleeve of his father’s sweatshirt, holding on for security.

While Garrett was still on his knees, he noticed the chaos around them: Shoppers nudged and pushed one another in an effort to get through the aisles; an hysterical mother called out for a lost child; a display of boxed items suddenly tumbled to the floor because a distracted customer wheeled a cart into it. And Garrett kept getting hit in the shoulders or head with purses and bags as people brushed past him.

From that vantage point, Garrett realized how unfriendly these surroundings would appear to a young child. He felt bad for not having been more sympathetic to his son’s plight and realized that Brad had been a champ in trying to brave his way through it.

“Hey, what do you say we get out of here and do this shopping another time?”

“Are you sure, Daddy?” Brad looked up at his father, trying to gauge why the plan was changing.

Garrett picked up his son and placed him on his shoulders. “Yup. Positive. Let’s go see that movie.”

The lesson should be clear. To be a better listener, start by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. “See” things from his perspective. Your quick, harsh judgments will dissipate and your willingness to listen and understand will increase dramatically.

Once you’ve made that mental shift…

2. Display encouraging, respectful attending behaviors.

In other words, you need to convey a receptive attitude and create a positive climate so the speaker feels more comfortable in communicating openly and directly. You do this by sharing a few non-threatening, slightly supportive verbal responses as the speaker is sharing. You say such things as: “That’s interesting … Uh-huh … Oh really … Wow … I see … and … Yes, I can relate to that.” Nonverbally, you exhibit excellent attending behaviors when you do such things as maintain an open posture, good eye contact, lean forward, and remove distractions from the conversational environment.

All of these attending behaviors encourage the talker to open up and talk, but they also put you in “position” to listen and only listen. It’s a highly effective skill to utilize.

3. Use probing questions to deepen your listening comprehension.

In other words, there may be times you really do want to listen, but you simply do not have enough information to make sense out of what the other person is saying. So probe. Ask questions to gather new or additional data about the speaker and the message he or she is attempting to communicate.

All you have to do is ask an open question or two focused on the area of needed information or confusion. You could ask questions like: “Could you clarify your precious comment about … What did you mean by … Say more about … and … Why do you feel …?”

That’s what Tyler’s fourth-grade teacher needed to do when Tyler blurted out an expletive in class. The teacher couldn’t believe her ears, and said, “In the hallway right now, young man. Where on earth did you learn that kind of word?”

“My dad says it all the time,” Tyler said. “Well, that’s not a word you or your father should be using,” the teacher scolded. “Do you even know what it means?”

“Yes,” Tyler said proudly. “It means the car won’t start.”

A lot of the teacher’s frustration could have been avoided if she had listened and probed before she judged and scolded.

4. Paraphrase what you hear when you listen.

More often than not, we simply assume we understand what somebody else is saying. No checking. No questions. Just pure old-fashioned assumption and arrogance … that because we heard it we presume we understand it. Nothing could be further than the truth. The research indicates that about half-the-time we DO NOT understand exactly what was said or meant.

We need to remember the old ditty that says: “You believe you understand what you think I said, but, I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” So true.

To avoid this kind of communication breakdown, you’ve got to paraphrase what you heard to see if it indeed matches the speaker’s intention. Check it out by saying such things as: “What I heard you say was … You believe that … To make sure we’re together on this point, you think … and … Your position is …” And once you’ve given your paraphrase, watch for confirmation, modification, or correction from the speaker.

I suppose that’s what one mother and her little girl should have done before the little girl went to school. While taking a routine vandalism report at an elementary school, a policeman was interrupted by a little girl about six years old. Looking up and down at his uniform, she asked, “Are you a cop?”

“Yes,” the policeman answered and continued writing his report. “My mother said if I ever needed help I should ask the police. Is that right?”

“Yes, that’s right,” I told her. “Well, then,” she said, as she extended her foot toward the policeman. “Would you please tie my shoe?”

5. Listen to the feelings that may or may not be expressed.

Almost always the speaker is feeling something, but she may not be expressing her feelings. She’s only sharing thoughts, ideas, and opinions, when in reality, what is not being said may be more important.

However, those feelings may never come out if the speaker feels like his feelings are being judged. And quite often a speaker will feel exactly that when they hear someone say, “You shouldn’t feel that way … Just cheer up … You’re just feeling sorry for yourself … and … When I was your age, I never felt …”

To encourage another person to share her feelings, those feelings must be listened to … in other words acknowledged, legitimized, and supported. As a listener, summarize, in a non-threatening manner, the emotions or feelings you perceive the speaker is discussing or experiencing. Try such comments as: “It sounds like you felt … From what you said, you seem to be feeling … I think I can understand your feeling of … Are you feeling __________ about …?.”

The best leaders, the best parents, and the best friends are invariably good listeners … even great listeners. And the good news is all of the skill they possess you can learn. Start with these five tips.

Action:  Which of the 5 listening tips would be most important for you to focus on … to really improve? And then outline 3 ways you are going to make that improvement.