Many years ago when I first started working as an accounting clerk, if someone came over to my desk to talk to me I would continue to work on whatever I was doing. I always heard what was being said and I actually thought that I was being very efficient. I learned my first important listening lesson one day when a colleague was telling me about a problem she was having that she thought I could help her with. I continued to post numbers in a ledger while she explained her situation to me. Suddenly, she shouted, “You’re not listening!” I told her I had been listening and thought I’d redeemed myself by repeating, almost word for word, everything she had said. She retorted, “But your eyes weren’t listening.” Of course, she was right; as far as she was concerned I had been no better than a part-time listener.
To be a good listener you must give the person who is talking to you your full attention. In addition to maintaining eye contact you have to pay close attention to his or her body language, facial expression and tone of voice. If you aren’t looking the speaker right in the eye you’ll be creating the same impression I did with my co-worker many years ago. By paying attention to facial expressions, body language and tone of voice you will better understand the other person’s emotional state, which isn’t always accurately conveyed by words alone.
It’s probably even more important to maintain eye contact when you’re speaking with someone in a crowd of people. If your eyes are wandering you are sending a message that you’re looking for someone more interesting or more important to talk to, even if that isn’t the case.
In some situations listening is all you have to do to be considered a good conversationalist. One night, as a head table guest at a business dinner, I was seated at the end of the table so I had only the woman on my right to talk to during the course of the evening. She was the after-dinner speaker’s wife, and although I knew her husband quite well I hadn’t met her before. Throughout the evening, while she and I were conversing, she probably talked for ninety per cent of the time. Yet, when I ran into her husband a few days later he told me what a wonderful conversationalist his wife thought I was. Basically, all I had done was listen attentively to what she had to say.
The truth is that many people wouldn’t listen at all if they didn’t think it was their turn next. As a result these people commit the most egregious listening sin, which is to be thinking about what they’re going to say rather than paying full attention to what is being said to them. Good listening needs your undivided attention. Don’t listen just to decide what you’re going to say when it’s your turn; listen instead to understand exactly what the other person is saying. Only then should you think about how you’re going to reply. This may take a few extra seconds, but it will never take as much time as having to undo misunderstandings.
Listen for intent as well as content. When you start to hear fuzzy generalities, especially from a person who is usually very clear in what they’re saying, ask a specific question; that way you’re more apt to find out what the other person is really trying to say. Remember the best way to get clear answers is to ask clear questions. The fuzzier the other person’s answers, the clearer your questions must be.
You shouldn’t tune out a person simply because there’s something about them that you don’t like. Listen to everyone; everyone has ideas, and ideas are sometimes more valuable than money. If you and I exchange five-dollar bills we each still have only five dollars. But if we exchange an idea, we now each have two ideas to think about.
You need to be careful not to overreact to ideas that question your beliefs. In these circumstances it’s particularly important to withhold judgement until you hear everything the other person has to say. Don’t fall into the trap of hearing only the first few words of a sentence because you’ve already decided what the other person is talking about, they may be leaving their main point until the end.
There are times when it requires an effort for you to speak up; but there are also times when it takes an effort to keep quiet. Applause is the only interruption that’s ever appreciated by any speaker, be it in front of an audience of one hundred or an audience of one, so don’t interrupt anyone, no matter how strong the temptation might be.
Good listeners aren’t just popular; they get to know things. When we’re talking we can only repeat what we know, but when we are listening we learn what other people know.
The other side of listening-too-little is usually talking too much. If you try to dominate a conversation you’ll never be a popular conversationalist and, perhaps even more important, you won’t learn much.