A verb (as we all learned from Schoolhouse Rock) is an action word. To work, to play, to live, to love (as the lyrics go)—they’re all verbs. And so is to listen. So if to listen is a verb, what does the act of listening look like? Here are six behaviors that can help you perform the verb of listening:
- Listening vs. waiting to talk: First, let’s make sure that we understand what we mean by listening. To listen is to give one’s attention to a speaker with the intent of understanding what is being said. This is different from waiting to talk. Whenever we encounter information we inevitably ask ourselves what is going on, what is going to happen next, how am I being treated, and how should I respond. This is natural. The problem is that sometimes this internal conversation drowns out the words of the person speaking. The trick in effective listening is to know that this inner discourse is happening without allowing it to distract you from the speaker’s message.
- Go in with questions in mind: We listen better when the information matters to us. It’s not selfishness; it’s self-preservation. Everyday we’re bombarded with countless messages. If we were to try to process all of these messages with equal attention we’d go insane. So our brains have developed to filter out information that does not have any clear relevance to us and our survival. By taking the time to come up with three or so questions before the conversation we turn on our radar and listen for those things that matter to us—and by extension listen better to everything as a whole.
- Remove distractions: Contrary to the predominant myth that multitasking allows us to increase our productivity, it doesn’t. In fact, research has shown us that those that are heavy multitaskers underperform in just about every category. Listening is no different. Effective listening means closing the laptop, putting away the smartphone, and giving the speaker your full attention free of distractions.
- Be aware of your body language: Your body language affects your ability to listen in a couple of ways. First, research suggests that simply assuming the position of an attentive listener increases your ability to gather and retain information. Second, your attentive body posture encourages the speaker, making him or her more likely to open up, share, and respond to your questions and input, making you part of a collaborative discussion.
- Reflect back what you hear: Don’t assume that just because the person talking is using words you understand and is arranging them in a grammatically-correct fashion that you understand what he or she is trying to say. We all attribute different meanings to the same words. Furthermore, the order in which we arrange these words has meaning in and of itself. As Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa said, “The way we choose to order its propositional content subtly affects that content so that the meaning changes ever so slightly with every vocabulary and syntactical choice we make.” This means that it’s always a good idea to reflect back what you believe you understood from the listener. Saying something like “So what I’m hearing you say is…” and then summarizing the key points as you understood them to be gives the speaker the opportunity to validate or amend what you are gathering from the conversation.
- Ask clarifying and probing questions: Speakers don’t know what you do or don’t know and so allow assumptions to direct what sort of information they share and to what degree. This means that in addition to reflecting back what you believe you’re hearing, asking clarifying question that probe at the topic help to raise the level of collaborative discourse.
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