7 Indispensable Secrets to Becoming a Better Listener

becoming a better listener sheldon cooper

Remember when you were a kid, and you had a knock-down, blow-out fight with your parents? It could have been about anything, really; and chances are it was about something that, in retrospect, was moronic on your part (or was it just me?).

A common refrain, though, in the aftermath and while debriefing your friends was something like this: “Dude, my parents just don’t _____ to me!”

Fill in the blank.

Ok, ok. Fine. No doubt you employed your Sherlock-esque deductive reasoning skills and put together that since this post is about listening, the word “listen” most likely belongs in the blank.

Well, you’re right.

The reason I point this out is because there’s a sort of universal frustration that all of us feel when we detect that someone isn’t listening to us.

[bctt tweet=”Not being listened to is universally frustrating. Listen better. #leadership #companyculture “]

So the question for us, then, is how can we — as leaders, as professionals, as humans — be different? How can we learn to not only listen, but listen deeply? How can we listen in such a way that by doing so we actually serve our fellow human?

Not many folks think of listening like that, and that’s a shame.

I want us to think differently about listening, so I’m going to give you seven indispensable secrets to becoming an amazing listener.

Secret #1 to becoming a better listener: Stop ignoring people.

This one seems obvious, but truth be told, we all do it from time to time. We get stuck with our heads up our…er…phones. Or we’re drowning in piles of inane emails, or we’re frantically trying to prep for yet another meeting where 92.5% of the attendees have no idea why they’re even there. But whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter. Someone steps into our office, starts talking to us, and our mind is some other place. We don’t even fake it. We just ignore, and consequently we have no earthly idea what they’re talking about.

Secret #2 to becoming a better listener: Stop faking it. 

First, if you’re a fan of The Office, that’s what she said.

Second, this is the one we’re all way more guilty of than we’d like to admit, and yes, I’m 100% including myself in this. Ever since we were just little humans waddling around elementary schools, we learned the fine art of the well-timed nod and smile, right? Or — and don’t even act like you didn’t do this — the contemplative, slow head nod, complete with a slightly furrowed brow, while your high school history teacher was droning on about who-knows-what.

Now why did we do those things? To give the impression that we were at least somewhat paying attention. Those behaviors stuck with us, though. Today, while you’re sitting in one of your meetings, look around the room at how many people are just nodding at the most random points. I’ll let you in on a secret: They’re faking it.

With real listening, however, we can’t fake it.

Secret #3 to becoming a better listener: Stop controlling people.

This one’s tricky because we can convince ourselves that we’re doing our part as leaders if we’re simply sitting there paying attention and not interrupting while someone is talking. The truth is that we can potentially be controlling and manipulative with or without saying a word.

[bctt tweet=”Truth is, people can be controlling & manipulative w/o saying a word. #leadership #companyculture”]

People are influenced by other people’s gestures, facial expressions, body language, breathing patterns, audible noises, and so on in addition to their words. We can make people feel inadequate, or like they need to soften their message, or even like they must wholly acquiesce to our every wish if we’re not careful; because the folks with whom we’re speaking are either consciously or subconsciously interpreting all of that stuff.

The scary truth is that some of us are probably controlling without even realizing it. The scarier truth is that some of us are probably controlling intentionally.

[bctt tweet=”Great #leaders listen without trying to control others. #leadership #companyculture”]

Secret #4 to becoming a better listener: Stop projecting.

An easy way to get a handle on understanding projecting and the resulting frustration it can cause would be to remind yourself of almost any recent presidential candidate debate. Like the GOP one, for example…

Or if the Dems are more your thing…

You’re welcome.

Projecting – be it consciously or subconsciously – is a way of life for many politicians, especially in a debate scenario.

Politician A will be prattling on about this or that when suddenly Politician B will enter into the dialogue, finishing Politician A’s thought the way he/she (Politician B) thinks it goes or wants it to go; following which Politician B is so kind as to offer a preemptive response to the argument that he/she partially projected. Many straw men were born this way. (Darn you, Lady Gaga.)

[bctt tweet=”If you’re projecting, you’re not listening. #leadership #communication #companyculture”]

Now here’s the point in the program where you might be thinking to yourself, “Yeah, Matt, we get it. Active listening is the key. Blah, blah, blah.”

Well, yes and no.

Yes, in that active listening is preferable to the things listed above.

No, in that in my estimation, active listening is a pretty basic standard of listening, it seems. I’ve said it before, but it almost feels like JV ball to me. Yes, we lean forward, make eye contact, repeat what they’ve said back to them to be sure we heard it correctly and have a basic understanding. But that feels more to me like checking things off some sort of mental list so we can say we listened than anything else.

[bctt tweet=”Active listening is just the beginning. Real listening can go much further. #leadership”]

So what about this…

Secret #5 to becoming a better listener: Respect your fellow human.

Listening — real listening — can have a deeply humanizing effect on an interaction, and multiplied out across multiple interactions, on an organization. If there’s one of these tips that’s somewhat akin to active listening, this would be the one. We hear what’s being said, we listen to them in the way we’d like to be listened to, we seek to understand the intent, and we respond accordingly. It’s productive. It’s respectful. We’re engaged.

[bctt tweet=”Real listening can have a deeply humanizing effect on people. #leadership #companyculture”]

Secret #6 to becoming a better listener: Empathize with your fellow human.

Now don’t skip this one because you’ve heard the word empathy tossed around all the time.

(Quick aside to give CreditUnionLand a shout out: Filene Research Institute‘s Social Media Advisor, Holly Fearing, has been having some interesting conversations around empathy over the past several months on both LinkedIn and CUInsight. Feel free to check those out at your convenience.)

Empathy isn’t nearly as simple as we make it out to be. “I know how you feel” isn’t empathy. “Walking a mile in someone’s shoes” isn’t empathy. Empathy involves being so present in the moment and listening so deeply and intently that you’re able to reflect and experience, in a sense, the other person’s state of being in such a way that they may even see themselves with a bit more clarity. Do you get how huge that is?

[bctt tweet=”Saying ‘I know how you feel’ isn’t #empathy. #leadership #emotionalintelligence #eq”]

So we endeavor to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. Whether they’re stating it plainly or not, what does the other person want or need? What are they feeling? Not what would I be feeling if I were them – what are they feeling?

Secret #7 to becoming a better listener: Use generative listening.

Generative listening can feel and sound a bit different at first, so hang in there. Robert Greenleaf — basically the father of modern servant leadership — said that “people grow taller when you listen to them.”

Generative listening is a deeper, more meaningful kind of listening. Generative listening serves others by helping them bring something better out of themselves. It becomes a sort of creative act, in a sense. You learn to pick up not only what’s being said, but also what wants to be communicated.

So what’s the bottom line? If you plug in these 7 indispensable secrets to becoming a better listener, it will change the way you listen, as well as they way you view interactions with people.

But what secrets would YOU add to the list? Share them in the comments below! If you leave your Twitter username, I’ll share YOUR great ideas there as well!


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