A common characteristic of highly successful people is a superior ability to listen. Listening skills are often overlooked or given little attention by those who seek self-improvement. The impression that listening contributes little toward desired results is usually the cause for ignoring this crucial component of communication.
If you observe the behavior of highly accomplished people, regardless of their profession, you will see that they are usually excellent listeners. Even those who are leaders in their field usually have outstanding listening skills. Watch how spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, political leaders like the President or Prime Minister of a successful country, or CEOs of a large corporation behave during various interactions with others. You’ll see how carefully they pay attention to what others are saying.
I once asked a man, who was a poor listener, to describe to me what it meant to have good listening skills. He told me that a person with these skills listens very carefully when another person is talking about something they are interested in. This is exactly the opposite of what good listening skills are about. If you only listen when someone is talking about something that you find really interesting you’ll miss 90% of what people are saying. If you have a strong propensity for this listening approach, you’ll develop a habit of being a poor listener in many areas of your life just like the person I was describing.
I first learned about the benefits of being a good listener through interaction with my last corporate boss who had extraordinary listening skills. Prior to working with him, I didn’t place as much value on listening as I did on getting my own points across. This was especially true when I was talking with a subordinate. I only gave my attention to what I perceived as important. I learned later that this was a huge mistake for a number of reasons.
I was always amazed at how my boss listened carefully to everything I said regardless of how trivial it might have been. Here was this person who was a former nuclear engineer who went back to school and got an MBA from Harvard after the growth of nuclear energy stopped. I often thought, “Why does such a brilliant person place so much importance on what I have to say?” (I didn’t consider him brilliant just because of his education. I made this determination based on observation.) Looking back I now know that his intelligence enables him to recognize the importance of listening to others in order to expand his knowledge, be a more effective manager, and make people feel valued. It worked! I really enjoyed working with this man. And even though his suggestions on my projects sometimes outshined mine, I never once felt slighted because he listened to my input on them so well.
I began to admire my boss’s listening skills to such a degree that I started seeing it as a really cool behavior. Kind of like someone who has the ability to deliver a speech extremely well. Or someone who has the ability to move through a crowd at a social event and make each person they greet feel uplifted and important. I listened to an audiobook that included a section on charisma. (I don’t recall the title.) It said that one of the characteristics of a charismatic person is a superior ability to listen! When a person feels that they are being listened to carefully, they naturally respond by giving back admiration and respect. Why? Because they feel what they are saying is being valued. In addition to improving your effectiveness as a boss, good listening skills are useful in many other areas as well.
Dale Carnegie, who is the author of the classic book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” wrote that when you are a good listener others often perceived you as a great conversationalist even though you’ve done very little talking beyond asking questions. People love to talk about themselves. Even those who are shy can be encouraged to talk by asking them a few questions on topics of interest to them. So if you want more friends and to be known as a great conversationalist, develop your listening skills.
Good listening skills are particularly important when it comes to having harmonious and productive relationships with your significant other, family members, children, and friends. It seems that there is always an inclination to make sure “we” are heard and understood in these relationships. How can we expect others to listen and understand us if we don’t first listen and try to understand them? Certainly, maturity plays a key role in this area, but children and teenagers will eventually model the behavior they see in front of them.
When you listen carefully to your loved ones, you can better understand and respond to their needs so that you can get from them what you want. When you are successful, they will reciprocate by listening to you more carefully and responding to your needs.
In your family and in other areas of your life, like your job or club, you may need to take the lead. Show them how to be good listeners through example. At work, you might include listening skills as a topic at future meetings. If you do, be sure to include segments about good listening skills with both coworkers and customers.
Here are some guidelines for developing good listening skills.
- Remind yourself of the benefits of being a good listener as you approach each listening opportunity.
- Give your full attention to what the person is saying.
- Keep your mind focused on what they are saying and do not allow your thoughts to drift.
- Keep your eyes on them and do not let your eyes wander regardless of what is happening around you.
- Find interest in what they are saying even if it extends to observing their communication style or learning more about their internal makeup.
- Do not interrupt, respond, or speak until you are sure the person is done even if they pause for extended periods. If you are unsure whether they are done, ask!
- Stay with their topic until they have finished. In other words, don’t change the subject to one about you!
- Show that you are following their communication with nods or short verbal acknowledgments.
- Ask questions if you don’t understand something.
- Summarize their main points if you sense they need definitive acknowledgment that you understand.
- Repeat your understanding of what they said if you need confirmation on a particular point.
- Do not argue or challenge their points unless there is a clear misunderstanding that might cause harm. Keep in mind that their perceptions are real to them regardless of whether you agree.
- Take pride in being an outstanding listener.
Good listening skills are as important as good speaking skills. One without the other is like trying to dance without music.