I know I’m not alone when I say I’m a people watcher. It might sound strange, but I get a kick out of observing people and their mannerisms and wondering what is going on inside their heads, especially when they are listening to someone.
The art of conversation is a big one for me because I think listening is just as important as speaking. Why do we so frequently forget about listening? It might be because so often, when someone comes to us with a problem, whether they are a loved one or a colleague, our first urge is to jump right in and problem solve, maybe even before they’ve finished speaking. We assume that getting ‘fixed’ is their end goal rather than just sharing.
The idea of what it means to be a great listener was brought to my attention recently in a meeting. The presenter was speaking and I casually looked around the room to see how my colleagues were responding to what the presenter was saying. I was intrigued when I noticed some checking their phones, a couple looking off into the abyss that was a white wall, another one taking what appeared to be notes, and a lot of shifting in seats.
Quit Thinking About What You’re Going To Say Next
Maybe they were Googling a stat to bring up, maybe she was taking notes on a point that needed to be raised, or maybe they were in deep thought about what they were going to contribute to the conversation. We’ll never know for sure. But what we can be certain of is, at one point or another during a conversation, all of us have focused more on what we’d like to say next than what the person speaking was saying in that moment.
However, we lose quite a bit in terms of communication and even trust when we can’t shift our focus to listening and responding adequately to the other person. Ever feel like a meeting or a conversation with someone has gone nowhere, because each person is just saying what they want to say?
The basic structure of a common conversation goes like this: you speak, then I react to what you said, then you or another person adds their thoughts. Based off this it would seem correct to decide in advance what your contributions to the conversation will be, but doing so means you are not responding in a manner that allows the other person to fully express their thoughts.
Maybe they shifted their opinion by the end of their statement — we won’t know for sure because we were too busy thinking about our next statement. By focusing on what you are going to say, you are paying the most attention to your own perspective on the conversation. What’s worse, you’re either assuming you already know what the other person is going to say, or have already decided it’s less important than what you want to say. It’s really hard to see the other’s perspective at that point. Context can be key to trying to understand the deeper issues the other person is facing when they make certain remarks.
Thinking Mindset and Doing Mindset
There are two mindsets with which we can approach conversations, according to social psychologist Arie Kruglanski. His work on motivation at the University of Maryland suggests that there are two distinct motivational mindsets: a thinking mindset and a doing mindset.
When we are in a thinking mindset we are dialled in to listening and really understanding what’s happening around us. In a doing mindset, we are actively planning our next contribution to the conversation without properly taking in the situation. When we speak we are conveying more that just words. Emotions are being communicated and the body is also speaking. Tone, word choice, eye contact, tempo… there are so many subtle clues an excellent listener can use to better help a friend in need with an issue, instead of the typical reaction to just problem solve.
You may not care one bit about the subject of the conversation, but getting a sense of how deeply something matters to another and appreciating that difference can increase their satisfaction about how an issue is being dealt with.
Easiest Way To Teach Yourself To Listen
Make it a habit to paraphrase and ask questions. These are great ways to make sure you are hearing the right things. If you’re in a group, this technique helps everyone clearly understand what the person is trying to convey. You have to be listening closely in order to repeat something back. Often times I’ve noticed when I speak with friends that are having some type of issue, whether it’s work or love related, just asking open ended questions and summarizing what I just heard them say gives them a measure of clarity on the issue. Also, it shows the other person that I’ve paid attention and I care enough to understand their point of view, which makes them trust me more and feel comfortable.
It’s not easy to break free from our automatic habit of the doing mindset, but habits can be broken and new ones can be formed. It takes work to be an excellent listener, especially when you don’t want to listen to what is being said because it’s hurtful to you. Listening is a skill a majority of people don’t have and if you are looking to sharpen those leadership skills, becoming a great listener is imperative.
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