Listening is hard work. It’s a skill that doesn’t always come naturally. The human brain is wired for survival, which means we’re more focused on ourselves than others. But, if you want to build good relationships, hire the right people, and solve problems, you’ll need to improve your listening skills, says Michael Reddington, author of The Disciplined Listening Method: How a Certified Forensic Interviewer Unlocks Hidden Value in Every Conversation.
Reddington is a forensic interviewer, which is the highest available designation of expertise in the field of interview and interrogation. The title qualifies him to interview high-level job candidates, witnesses and crime victims, and suspects. Over the years, he’s honed his skills. “We’ve got to be locked in at a pretty high level,” he says.
When it comes to listening, he says there are common mistakes most people make.
Falling prey to your biases
When entering a conversation, people match their listening effort to the expectations they carry into the exchange, says Reddington.
“If I think a conversation is going to be a waste of time, if I think somebody doesn’t have any value to offer, or—maybe the worst—if I think I know how this conversation is going to end before it even starts, then I’m not going to be into it at the level I’m capable of,” he says.
By downgrading the conversation, a lot of information gets missed or dismissed.
Another form of bias is not separating the message from the messenger. Reddington uses the example of interrogating someone who’s been accused of something that he might find morally offensive.
“That doesn’t mean that they don’t have valuable information to share with me during this conversation,” he says. “If I let that moral offense cloud how I listen and communicate, I could really miss out on some opportunities to learn during the conversation.”
Succumbing to distractions
Another pitfall to proper listening is being distracted by what’s going on around you, such as your computer, phone, the television, or other people talking. Distractions are hard to eliminate, but the one that typically gets overlooked is our internal monologue, says Reddington.
“I literally can’t be listening to you, because I can’t listen to two conversations at once, and my internal monologue is going to win 100% of the time,” says Reddington. “That internal monologue is likely going to lead me down the road of my feelings and emotions; what I want to say next or what I think is going to happen next.”
Distractions and biases often go hand in hand, adds Reddington. “Our brains are wired to listen for information that confirms what we already think and believe and disregard information that contradicts what we think and believe,” he says. “I can be ignoring the other person while reinforcing my emotions and biases. And unfortunately, I will likely trick myself into thinking that I listen to you, because I heard just enough of what you’re saying to think I got the message, when I really didn’t.”
Change your mindset
While it sounds like some conversations are doomed from the start, it’s possible to override your tendencies by redefining the goal of a conversation. For example, if you’ve given an employee direction and they fail to follow through, you might go into a conversation thinking, “This person needs to understand how upset I am and how important it is for them to listen. They need to realize the effect that their behavior is having on the company, and the consequences if they don’t change.”
“That’s a very emotionally driven, short-term focus going into that conversation, which is likely going to create or increase the likelihood of some negative interaction and stop us from observing for value,” says Reddington, who is president of InQuasive, a company that trains leaders on truth-seeking methods and tools for business interactions. “We have to navigate those emotions first. The real goal of the conversation is to make sure that the person understands the potential that we’re able to achieve as an organization when they implement the new behaviors, such as stress reduction, increased morale, and better customer service.”
Focusing on the long-term benefits allows you to take a different mindset into the conversation. Instead of focusing on imposing your viewpoint or emotions, you can go into the conversation focused on achieving the long-term goal. This approach will change how you listen to the other person.
Leverage remote working to improve your listening
The good news is that now is the best time to work on your listening skills. With remote working arrangements, you get to reduce the variables, says Reddington.
“If you were having a conversation in a coffee shop and were trying to be in tune to the totality of each other’s communication, you would be trying to evaluate all of the nonverbal body language, all of the verbal communication, while trying to be cognizant of your own choice and body language,” he says. “Plus, you’d be trying to keep track of everything going on around you.”
When you’re on a call or virtual meetings, you can be far less worried about your own nonverbal behavior and you have to throw away most of the behaviors of the other person, because you don’t have context, seeing what’s going on around them.
“Just focus on the verbal delivery, word choice, the speed and tone of voice, and pauses,” says Reddington. “You should be much more in tune and do a much better job listening. As long as you can limit the distractions on your end, this should be an opportunity for improving your listening.”