We associate listening with our ears. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus observed, "We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak." But there’s lots more to listening than opening our ears and hearing what somebody says. It involves our full being—good listeners have a physical, mental, and emotional presence, and they know how to integrate all three. It's not as difficult a balancing act as you may think, but it does take a little more deliberate thought than most of us bring to the activity. Here's how to brush up.
You already know that body language can make you a better or worse communicator: When I make eye contact with you, I hear you better. When I turn toward you, you see that I’m more engaged. It's the same when I turn off my smartphone and signal that I won’t be distracted from our exchange.
But even those of us who do this well rarely do it deliberately—which means that we often do it haphazardly. Instead, it's important to take these steps consciously in order to really listen to someone. Showing nonverbally that you're open to what another person wants to convey verbally is the crucial prerequisite to being able to connect on any other level.
The truth is that body language isn't just an important ingredient for speakers and leaders—or for the times when we want others to listen to us. It's no less essential when the tables are turned.
Listening mentally isn't just about paying careful attention to what others are saying, it means responding by building upon their thinking.
The starting point here is attentiveness. How many times do we find our minds wandering in any given encounter? In Mindful Leadership, author Maria Gonzalez estimates that roughly half the time we devote to a given task isn't spent focusing on completing it. It's much the same for the way we communicate.
Do your best not to mentally "disappear" from the conversation—which is harder than you may think. One way to stay attentive is to "track" the other person’s thinking: Make a mental outline or summary of their points and ideas so you can consciously follow their train of thought.
Mental listening also involves probing for more information. If you’re talking to a staff member or colleague, help them build the case they're delivering to you. For example, you might say: "I heard you say you want to go in a new direction. Why is this important to you?" or, "How did you come to this conclusion?" If the person's thoughts seem a little unfocused, offer to help reframe their message. Ask, "Is your point that . . . ?"
Probing can also help you pinpoint where your thinking and the other person's intersect. For example, if you’re in a job interview, ask questions that help you see how the interviewer sees the position—then respond accordingly.
As you’re listening mentally, you can also pick up on the verbal cues that flag what the other person believes to be the core of their message. For instance, "So what I’m saying is . . . " Listen for proof points like "first," "second," and "third." If the person uses lots of "um’s" and "ah’s," or hedging phrases like "sort of" and "maybe," it's a good bet that their ideas aren't fully baked, or that they're less committed to them. Strong verbs ("I believe," "I know") as opposed to weaker ones ("I think," "I guess") suggest that the speaker is convinced of their beliefs and thinking like a leader.
Finally, listen for the "holes" in what’s being said. If the story changes at all as the speaker continues—or if there's any crucial information that's conspicuously absent—you'll be able to pick up on the gaps that may need filling in.
The third piece of the puzzle, emotional listening, involves connecting with others' feelings—and not letting your own get in the way.
In a global survey by the Economist earlier this year, C-level executives singled out technology and finance as the two areas where they needed to improve their skills. Yet lower-ranking employees had a different take: They felt their bosses needed to strengthen their emotional intelligence and leadership chops.
The starting point for emotional listening is reinforcement—nodding your head, or saying "yes" and "I understand"—but it doesn't stop there. Show you empathize with phrases like, "I can see why you feel that way," or "That must have been a difficult decision for you." This encourages others to open up and share their feelings, not just their thoughts and ideas.
Much the way that your own body language sets the stage, emotional listening also involves reading the speaker’s nonverbal signs. Study their face, listen to their tone of voice, examine their posture. Suppose you're at a meeting and you see a colleague's arms are crossed and eyes are down. You turn and say, "It doesn’t seem like you’re comfortable with this decision." Or you might just comment, "Hey, wait a minute—I think Joe may feel differently about this proposal."
You don't want to put someone on the spot, but you do want to show you're tuning into others' feelings, even if they haven't fully verbalized them yet (which it's always their prerogative to decline to do). The outcome will likely be better because you’ve made the discussion more inclusive.
Listening is an intensely creative and collaborative process—much more so than we often give it credit for. But the raw material that you and your company need to move forward together lies in the hearts and minds of those around you. And you can tap into them simply by giving a little more thought to each of these levels on which real listening takes place.