Written by Salina Jivani
I’ve met some extremely intelligent people in my life. Some have driven businesses into success and others have amassed millions in the span of a few decades. Still others have built empires from the ground up, throwing thousands of dollars around like chump change. Yet what shocks me is when I speak with these people and realize that they arehorrible listeners.
To me, successful people are good communicators and good communicators have to be good listeners. But it’s amazing how many people lack this key ability.
In 2014, I attended a local APMP conference where a communication specialist delivered an impactful workshop on the barriers to effective listening. And of all the workshops I attended during the conference, this is one that resonated with me the most, because I realized that I was guilty of displaying traits of a bad listener. Here’s what the specialist recommended as steps to take to enhance your listening skills, and I try to use these often in my own day-to-day efforts.
Remove the filter
One of the first pieces of advice the instructor shared was to “lower the barriers in your mind.” I kid you not when I say I literally heard mine collapse. Yes, I know. Shame on me. We all at times have certain blocks and filters in our brains which make us perceive what we want, often at the expense of discrediting or dismissing other people’s thoughts or true intentions. Often in these cases, the walls in our mind hinder people’s words from actually being processed beyond our own thoughts, and right away we hear our brain screaming at them, “Hey, no! What you’re saying is just not possible.” In fact, this reminds me of a relative of my husband’s who follows everything anything anyone says with the phrase “Nah, that can’t be possible.” It’s frustrating and often infuriating to speak to someone like that. And it’s because that filter is up like the Great Wall of China in their minds that they often don’t understand—or refuse to try to understand—what other people are saying.
So the first step here is a difficult one to accomplish for those of us who are preprogrammed to erect that barrier and question or doubt everything we are told. But if this barrier remains up and active, you can toss your chances of being a good listener out the window (or over the Wall!).
Stop talking in your head
I’ll admit, I’m completely guilty of this one, too. Often times—and more often after I had kids —I find my mind going a million miles an hour in a thousand different directions. Clothes need to be hung, dishes need to be cleaned, the house needs to be vacuumed, plants need to be watered, kids need to be fed…. And with so many things to do, it’s easy to nod along or murmur a quick hmm of acknowledgement while someone talks, but let’s face it. This one’s a no brainer and giving half-hearted acknowledgements is definitely not an attribute of a good listener. When someone is talking to you, shut down your thoughts, look at the person, absorb what they are saying and eliminate all distractions (or as many as you can). A good practice is to engage in the conversation by responding, asking questions and showing empathy, as appropriate.
Stop forming opinions
Your friend just told you he locked his keys in the car and burned his favorite shirt with an iron. And all you can think about is what a moron he is and you’re glad that ugly shirt has finally kicked the grave.
It’s so easy to get distracted in our own minds and forms opinions of people and their actions. But being opinionated isn’t only about secretly mocking and shaming those who confide in you. Forming opinions about a topic or situation to be discussed can equally hinder your understanding as well as your intellectual growth, because you’re too far grounded in opinion to listen or entertain another perspective.
People are often also guilty of harboring preconceived notions or making judgements about others based on conversations or appearances. Stop looking with your eyes and activate your ears. Keep judgements at bay and allow people to completely finish their thoughts before forming an opinion. You’ll find that you’ll learn so much more if you simply listen. Maybe your friend was looking for an empathetic ear about his horrible day or maybe he was having a horrible day because something bigger was bothering him. It’s hard to get to the root of those issues or offer an appropriate response if you’re too busy forming opinions.
If you’re not a good listener and you’re really trying to improve, following these steps can prove frustrating and even challenging. But remember that baby steps or even unsuccessful attempts are better than not trying at all. Start with one step at a time and work your way up until you feel the difference in your ability to retain information and lower the barriers that prevent you from being the best listener you can be.