Have you ever found someone who you admire and has been successful without listening to others, or being listened to by others? Listening, really listening, is perhaps the most under-invested in skill. It’s not about hearing – it’s about understanding. And at a time when people are realizing that their communication relies more on the spoken word than the written one, it’s also on the decline. As someone whose work centers around enhancing our ability to focus, I have been obsessed with what makes people work well, and in turn, how people listen well. Here, some of the tools I’ve adopted to make sure I listen with intent, maximizing my communication to build better business relationships.
A few years ago, I first read about English literary scholar Mark Edmundson’s theory of cognitive impatience, mostly seen in college students. I was fascinated, because it described so much of what I was seeing in board rooms. Many of the people I was meeting in business similarly lacked the ability to grapple with the bigger picture of what was being said. The managerial paradox of today is one in which team leads are constantly being pulled into meetings, ultimately minimizing their time to engage with critical deep work or problem solving. What most people don’t know is that listening properly is decisive in yielding true value from any communication, as well as the resulting work it leads to.
Listening properly can be anyone’s secret weapon to successful career acceleration, productivity, process streamlining and high-impact work
The Godfather of listening
When I looked further into things, I became drawn to the ideas of Dr. Ralph G. Nichols, who studied listening for over 40 years. Considered the godfather of listening studies, he said something that changed the way I communicate altogether. Nichols explained that when people talk, they want listeners to understand their ideas. In a society that is caught up on passive reading and skimming text, our brains are always focused on skimming for facts. Instead, you need to shift your entire focus to listening with the goal of piecing together ideas, rather than remembering facts, and it changed the way I could work.
“It seems simple, but it is counter intuitive to how we consume other information. When people talk, they want listeners to understand their ideas, not facts.”
The listening paradox
I was often in situations where my brain would be juggling so much on a to-do list that when I was listening to someone who I really needed to focus on, I would mentally dive off and digress before circling back to what someone was saying. Most people can relate to this universal experience, a by-product of our brain’s ability to process language at a much faster rate than it can be spoken.
I still swear by a notebook that I scribble in each day to try and keep my brain as free as possible to focus on people when I need to communicate, but above that, I have adopted other techniques that are applicable in real-life circumstances for anyone in business.
Developing my listening pays off far beyond things like EQ and good people management – it allows the work I do to hold more focus and meaning.
Listen mindfully with these four techniques
A lot of my work at Jabra focuses on the technology that will enhance people’s ability to focus, or listen, by reducing the noise disturbances from around them, and yet regardless of noise levels, if you want to build your listening skills, you need to build awareness to the factors that affect your capacity to listen. Full credit must be given to Nichols for the framework, but I have found these invaluable, and apply them on a daily basis to check that I am always present.
- Always listen ahead of the person talking, trying to anticipate their next point and what they are getting at. A lot of people think this means verbally encouraging or cueing someone to go on, in order to let them know that you are listening, but that’s not the case with this. It’s more about your focusing on staying with their train of thought without drifting off.”
- Constantly evaluate the evidence given by someone to support what they are saying. This isn’t about judging someone in order to jump to conclusions. On the contrary, you should avoid doing that or engaging with confirmation bias. I look at this as an exercise in data, correlating granular points to help build the cumulative idea and check it for blind spots before engaging with it. Think of it like a file transfer that is checking for broken links.
- Make mental summaries of what’s been covered by whoever is speaking as they are going along. If your brain is coasting, use it to make summaries of what’s been said so far, rather than going off on another tangent altogether.
- Listen out for what is not being said as you put meaning to what is being said and why it is being said. Look at the framing involved when someone is speaking and see if you can pick up on what they might be shifting attention to or steering away from.
The difference between active and passive listening
Earlier on in my career, I was in a project room close to midnight in midsummer at a point where I had been working endlessly to make a promotion. My manager had spent the last part of the day talking me through the next steps on a project that I had to nail. I was so obsessed with readying my replies to him and pointing out everything else that was organised, that I was failing to take in what he was actually saying. Had I focused on listening to him in that moment, I would have been out the office before dinner. Though I find both new and old-school tools can aid my productivity today, developing my listening pays off far beyond things like EQ and good people management – they allow the work I do to hold more focus and meaning.
“I was so obsessed with readying my replies to him and pointing out everything else that was organised that I was failing to take in what he was actually saying to me”
Our brains will always think faster than the words we are hearing, but with this method, you can focus on listening better, by teaching yourself to use your spare thinking time efficiently while you listen. The result will change the entire way you process information and allow you far more meaning and value in your communications, both at home and in work.
References: Are You Listening? by Leonard Stevens and Ralph G. Nichols