Everyone assumes that listening is a passive process. Information enters in the form of words through our ears, gets processed by our brains and comes out the other end as actions. However, we all know people where this information seems to go “in one ear and out of the other” – the input doesn’t correspond to the desired output. They “hear” the messages going in, but unless that produces a suitable reaction, you can hardly call it listening.
True listening is anything but passive.
Listening is not only about processing the words. The way they are told, the tone, the facial expressions and body language of the speaker weave a far richer picture. This imparts far more meaning to the message than the words themselves, but it is up to the listener to interpret the messages in the way that the speaker intended.
This is extremely hard work. Mind reading is impossible, but if you listen actively enough, you can get close. If you are seeking to influence others, they firstly need to understand that they are being understood.
There are few professions that require superb listening skills more than recruitment. Having a nervous candidate sitting in front of you, not quite sure how to tell their career story, you have to be able to read between the lines. Teasing the details of a job brief from a client that doesn’t quite know the scope themselves is something that we undertake on a regular basis. As the owner of a recruitment firm, there are four distinct rules that I encourage my people (and myself) to remember:
Analyse the non-verbals (independent of the words). For whatever reason, what people say does not always reflect the whole truth of their message. They may be nervous, they may not know how to say something or they may not be able to say it, so if you take the words on face value, you will often miss the tell-tale signs of non-verbal communication. The moment that there is a disconnect between the non-verbals and the verbals, it is important to analyse why. This will add an entirely different level of meaning to the message.
Empathising means forgetting about yourself. For truly effective listening, you need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and consequently forget about your own perspective for a while. If you are continually approaching conversations with your own personal end-game in mind, the other person will feel that you are uninterested in what they have to say. People give more if they feel that their opinions are valued.
Focus on the ideas behind the words. Step past what a person is saying and think about what they are trying to say. When you know someone well, you have more information to come to these conclusions, but even for a stranger, after a few short sentences, you have enough material to be able to infer a wider meaning. Use the next part of the conversation to check your understanding
Don’t allow for any distractions. In our busy lives, this is the hardest part of any conversation. A little patience lets people feel that they have the chance to explore their feelings in full, and you will come away with a much richer picture. If you are always acting as if you have “somewhere to go”, your conversation partners will always try to keep it brief, and you will miss out on the crucial details in any message.
The “two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion” idea doesn’t quite compute when there are two people in a conversation as a third of the time would be silence, but actually, a little bit of silence is no bad thing.
It gives you both time to think about what exactly you are trying to say.