Part of my job is interviewing people – clients, witnesses, experts, children. In an attempt to move the conversation along to the part where I can be helpful, I am often tempted to go all Jack Webb on people (just the facts, ma’am, just the facts). But I have learned hurrying people along, rushing their story, often results in losing details that can be helpful in understanding someone’s position or situation. Listening is more than not interrupting.
Most of us are not born ‘good listeners’ – it’s hard to really listen when planning a response. But good listening is a skill that can be honed and it’s worth the effort to cultivate it. Here are a few ways to get closer to laudable listening.
1. Lean in. There’s more of your body involved in listening than just your ears. When sitting, lean slightly toward the speaker. Make eye contact (but not in a zombie-like unblinking stare). Let your face register interest (yes, it’s a choice).
2. Don’t tell someone how they feel. Ask questions. For instance, saying: “You must be scared” puts one in a position of adopting the sentiment, agreeing politely whether its accurate or not, or arguing with you (as in: “No, I wasn’t scared, I was . . .)to express how they really feel. The better approach is a question such as: “Are you scared?” or “How do you feel?”
3. Avoid the mirror language. Using the phrase “what I hear you saying is . . . ” prior to restating what was just said is, in my opinion, overrated. I recognize there can be a use for it, especially in therapeutic relationships. But it can also come across as condescending. A more authentic interaction is to ask clarifying questions or ask up front: “Do you mind if I state back what I think your position is to make sure I’m on the same page?”
4. Give the speaker affirmations. Nodding at appropriate places or saying things like: “uh-huh” or “yes” to indicate understanding reinforce the speaker’s perception of being heard.
5. Using these tips in reverse. An effective listening skill is not listening sometimes. When one is trying to foist gossip, mean-spirited comments, or negativity on you, shaking the head, saying “uh-uh” and leaning back can shut it down as effectively as an unnecessary rude response. If you are compassionate and do listening well, you can be a target for self-centered types who verbally dump on you or ramble on with total disregard for your time (not to mention level of interest). This is the time to break the “don’t interrupt” rule in order to tell them you need to move on. It can be your way of helping them hone their own listening skills.