The real secret to becoming a better communicator: LISTEN

The real secret to becoming a better communicator: LISTEN



by Anne Ricketts and Michael Shehane

In a 2015 interview at Stanford Graduate Business School, Oprah Winfrey said,

“Every single human being is looking to know, are you fully here with me? Are you listening to me, or are you distracted? That’s what your children want to know, that’s what your spouse wants to know, that’s what the people you work with want to know, that’s what YOU want to know. Every argument isn’t about the thing you are arguing about, it’s about, are you hearing me?”

So why is it, if every human being simply wants to be heard, are we so terrible at listening?

Technology. Maybe you tell yourself that now more than ever people are distracted with the notifications that buzz, ring, ding and command the attention of smart phone users. How many times have you been looking at your phone and saying “uh huh” when someone was telling you a story?

We like to hear ourselves speak. Instead of listening to understand, we usually listen with the sole intent to add our two cents. Of course, hopefully we have good intentions, trying to show the person speaking that he or she is not alone; we have a shared body of knowledge or experience. However, sometimes we have our own agenda to further and somebody has offered an opportunity to conveniently steer the conversation to what is concerning ourselves by giving a relevant but tangential story of our own. In any case, finding “common ground” often results in us cutting off the other person before they are truly done.


As a communication coach, I am usually trying to help my clients speak more effectively, but the truth is most of us, myself included, need to learn how to more effectively listen.


It’s a constant struggle, but with the easy reminders below we can strengthen our communication and relationship with others.

Here are seven tips to become a better listener in your personal and professional life.


Tip #1: Put away distractions. Time is a finite resource and giving our time to others is a gift. We know this but the temptation while in meetings or out with our friends to multi-task on our devices is strong–the nagging sense that there never is enough time, that we need to stay ahead of the game, that we can tune in and out when it directly applies us. The truth is we are trying to check off boxes in our to-do list and we are not actually listening.

Listening is being present. Holding space for the person who is talking. Stepping through the thought process of someone else, so they can get a clearer picture of what they are perceiving. To show your intention to listen and be present, keep your phone out of site and not on the table. In work meetings, consider having shorter meetings with a no-lap top rule, so that you get more done in a shorter amount of time. Presence comes from being present.


Tip #2: Listen to understand, not solve. Humans tell stories. Business stories. Personal stories. Stories with data that show financial prosperity. Stories about the past, present, and future that speakers try their best to tell so that those who are listening share a distinct human emotion: fear, anger, disgust, sadness, or happiness.

The other day my mom told me a story over the phone. She had had with a neighbor a little tiff about the upcoming 2016 presidential election that turned into a blowout. My mom’s feelings were hurt because the neighbor had taken what my mother had said out of context, and she felt the neighbor was accusing her of subscribing to certain political beliefs that she matter of fact did not. In other words, she felt misunderstood.

My need to prove to my mom that I was a communication expert kicked in, and I suggested that she might want to be more careful next time about what she says at parties. Immediately, my mom got off the phone with me, and only then did I realize what I had done. I had offered a solution to solve her problem and hadn’t listened to her fear of being misunderstood. My mom was upset, and all she needed in that moment was empathy. Someone to say, “Gosh, I’m so sorry that happened. I know that’s not who you really are!”


Tip #3: Avoid the ‘me-too syndrome’. To show common ground, we often try to equate or experiences with someone else’s, for example:

A: Welcome back! How was your trip?

B: Peru was great!

A: Oh, really! Did I ever tell you? I’ve already been there. Twice! I love it there. Did you hike Machu Picchu? I did. The funniest thing happened when I did. My friend and I hired a Sherpa and….


When you take the focus off the other person and put it on yourself, play the believing-doubting game. Are you an enthusiastic conversationalist or are you “one up-ing” him or her? Don’t fall victim to the me-too syndrome!


When in doubt, listen. Ask a follow up question. Find out more about their trip. What? Where? When? How? Why? If you need a rule of thumb, ask questions until the other person asks you a question. If the other person doesn’t ask you a question after you have asked five, feel free to excuse yourself from the conversation.


Tip #4: Enjoy the Silence. Sometimes when we want to show someone that we like him or her, we fill awkward silences with a I-totally-know-what-you-mean comment. Sometimes when we don’t know someone, we also fill awkward silences with a the-same-thing-happened-to-me remark.


Last week I was on a plane, and the two 30-something people behind me spoke for over an one hour at the top of their lungs about everything under the sun, mirroring stories left and right, one on top of the other. I was exhausted just listening to them; I didn’t know whether they were going to get into a fight or start to make out.


Listen for breaks in the conversation. Breathe and take a split-second pause before interrupting or chiming in. Own the moment. Give it your full attention. Repeat in your head what the other person just said. If you’re feeling antsy or irritated when listening, take a deep breath. It will help calm you down. And, the person you are talking to you will feel heard.


Tip #5: Let thoughts come and go. The average speaker talks at a rate of 160 words per minute, but people can listen at 220, as explained by Celeste Headlee in her TED Talk 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation.


Distraction might be your mind wandering to an un-replied email, your next vacation. Distraction might be going through your mental rolodex of possible interpretations, inferences, implications of what you are hearing. Distraction might be remembering these seven tips as you listen to your employee tell you the same story for the third time today about why the problem has to be solved systematically.


Recognize that this is normal and steer towards understanding. Stay focused. Let thoughts come in, and let them go.


Tip #6: Fess Up and Ask. You lost focus. What do you do? Confess that your mind wandered but you are committed to be fully present for the conversation.


Here are some phrases you can use:


-Can you say that last part again?

-I’m sorry. I want to understand but I got distracted. Can you say that again?

-Let me see if I can say back what you are saying. Please tell me if I’ve got this right.

-My mind is not focused right now. Please tell me what you’d like me to know.


One brief period of embarrassment is better than walking away saying to yourself, I have no idea what that conversation was all about.


Tip #7: Before disagreeing, repeat back what was heard. Listening is difficult because not only does it require investing time in others with the possibility of no return, but also we want to be heard ourselves.


Those who are powerful face the constant temptation of being heard but never having to hear. These despots– children, politicians, and CEOs are on their way to living in a world of their own illusions. Those who are powerless face the fear of having to listen to others and becoming Yes Men and Women.


Somewhere in between these two polarities is where we stand. As educated people wanting to change and become the best version of ourselves, we have learned to entertain the beliefs, stories, and logical conclusions of others even though these ideas contradict our own experience and knowledge. This confidence in what we know allows us entertain the ideas of others and listen.


If we can hold space for other people to talk and be heard, we can also repeat back to them what we heard. We heard others say it, “What I think you are saying is this… Am I right? Hmmmm… I can see that. Have you ever considered this? In my experience, I have learned…,” and now it’s our turn to say it, too.


Some days we won’t listen. Some days we won’t be heard. These two occurrences feed on each other. The more we aren’t heard, the more we don’t listen. Going back to the story of my mom, I can see how fearful we humans are of listening and not being heard. What if we listened? Would we be heard more?


Lighthouse Communications offers courses on effective communication, presentation skills, and training for non-native English speakers. Individual coaching is available on request.

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