The lost art of listening

Five steps to help us listen better

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We're living in the ‘dark age of distraction,’ and have all sat in a meeting, or been to dinner with someone who is checking their emails while we’re trying to converse with them. Before you nod in agreement let’s humbly accept that we're not just the victims but at some time have been the culprits too. Think about it. Have you ever been on the phone with someone and tried to read your emails at the same time? Or on the phone ‘listening’ to someone else while your child or spouse stands near you asking you a question? Or typing an email while someone is talking to you on a speakerphone? The truth is that we have all done it. While we can put our hands on any information we desire, at any time, are we losing the art of slowing down, concentrating on what someone else is saying and reaching true understanding?

We know that research has proven over and over again that we can’t effectively do two things at once. While ‘multi-tasking’ has become the norm, we are not hard-wired to be able to effectively do more than one thing at a time. When it comes to listening to others, it’s important to remember this.

We lose a great deal when we neglect to focus on another person. When we aren’t giving our full attention and we have to ask someone to repeat themselves, we send a message to the other person that they aren’t that important to us. We don’t learn as much about others, and we can't possibly convey that we care about others, without putting the energy and attention into listening to them.

How can we reclaim the lost art of listening?

» Become aware of your filters

We all have them. We take in information through the filter of ‘me’. We process it, digest it and understand it by relating it to something we think we already know. Unfortunately, in the listening arena, this means we may not allow someone to finish their thought. Or we may put a label on what they are saying, or judge their experience. We are quick to jump to a conclusion, thinking we ‘know’ what they are saying. Putting aside our filters means we stop those voices in our heads while we are listening to someone else. We don't cut them off in mid-sentence. We don't respond to their story with a story about our lives and our concerns. Instead, we listen and patiently wait for the person to explain. We probe and ask ‘why’ questions for deeper understanding; not in a combative way, but with a sincere interest and curiosity. Seek to learn who they really are and why they say what they say.

» Watch behavioural styles

We all have different communication approaches. Some of us are bold and definitive in our approach. Others prefer to think about things and mull over them. Some of us are upbeat and gregarious, while others are more non-emotional and even critical. Different styles can get in the way of our understanding. We focus more on how someone is saying something, rather than what they are saying. In fact, we can even stop listening because we become so aware of the other person’s tone, body language and pace. Realise that often when we ‘don’t like’ someone, it is really because we are reacting to their style. We can stop paying attention because of this interpersonal distraction. Be aware of it when it happens, look past the style, and try to understand the meaning behind the words.

» Give them your full attention

It takes energy and commitment to give someone your full attention when they are talking. This means you can’t drive and talk, you can’t read emails and talk, and you can’t ‘get something done’ while you talk. When in person, physically face the person. On the phone, refuse to look at other things; imagine the person is in front of you, watching you. At the moment you are listening, consider that person, and the engagement you are having, to be the centre of your universe. Nothing else matters. Pretend you’ve never talked to them before and you don’t know anything about them, and it’s your job—your requirement—to learn all that you can. If you cannot muster up the energy for this type of engagement with someone else, don’t bother interacting. We know when another person doesn’t really have the time or effort for us. If you care, create the energy you need to make that person the central figure of your life for the period of time they are talking to you. Focus. Focus. Focus.

» Don’t assume you know what they mean

How often do we want to move the conversation along, so we jump to conclusions and make assumptions about what someone else is saying? We hear a word we recognise, or a theme that makes sense to us, and we stop listening—assuming we know what’s going on. Most of us have had the situation where we acted on something, assuming we knew what another person wanted. We were sure of ourselves and responded—only to find out we were wrong. We misunderstood something entirely. It’s frustrating for both parties when this happens. Realise that if you ‘think’ someone else wants something, or means something or is in need of something, you are probably wrong! Instead of thinking about them, talk to them. Seek clarification and understanding. Get specific – instead of ‘‘Do you want me to call you?’’ respond with, “Do you want me to call you on your cell phone next Wednesday afternoon?” Take the time to clarify and specify, so you know what’s being conveyed or required.

» Make listening a priority

When you think about things you want to be known for, most of us want to be recognised for how smart we are, or how successful we are, or how socially ‘wired’ we are. How many of us strive to be recognised for being a good listener? How many of us wake up and set a goal of really listening to each person we encounter that day? If you want to recapture the lost art of listening, you have to make it a priority. It has to be an important focus for you and something that you care about. If you give the process short shrift, you can’t possibly improve your skills. Many of us yearn for that person who will listen; that person who seems to care only about us, and what we are saying in that moment. It’s a human desire to be understood! If you can be the person who listens well, and cares what others are saying, you will be memorable in business and in life.

Bringing back the lost art of listening in the Age of Distraction won’t be easy. But it’s possible, and it’s necessary if you really want to know what others care about and what’s happening in their lives. In business it is essential to listen well, and in our personal lives it makes us a much more appealing friend or mate!


A version of this was first published in the October 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Beverly Flaxington
Beverly D Flaxington holds both a BSBA and an MBA from Suffolk University and is currently a lecturer there teaching Leadership and Social Responsibility. She is a popular speaker, a business building expert, an executive coach, a behavioural expert, and a two-time bestselling and Gold-award winning author. As an entrepreneur, she has been running her own consulting firm, The Collaborative, for over 20 years. Her book 30 Days to Understanding Other People: A Daily Approach to Improving Your Relationships was released earlier in 2012.

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