There is a big difference between hearing what someone said to you and that person actually feeling heard. And it’s a hugely important difference! According to research, most people experience being truly heard as synonymous with being cared about. In fact, in one study teenagers who were being listened to by adults who used a specific set of listening skills (see below) later reported that they believed the adult they had been talking to cared about them – even though there was nothing in the content of the conversation that would have given them that impression. Being listened to feels like being cared about, which makes this particular adaptive skill a “must have” for anyone who manages other people. As previously explored here, for employees to become fully engaged, they need to know that the person they report to directly cares about them as a human being, and not just as a cog in their system.
Whenever you want to improve an adaptive skills, you want to work on two levels simultaneously: the internal (thoughts, attitudes and beliefs) and the external (observable behaviors). So, let’s do this!
How to listen so others feel heard
The internal work: (What should be going on in your head?)
1. Focus! It’s time to do your best to stop thinking about that Game of Thrones episode you watched last night, no matter how mind-blowing it may have been.
2. Curiosity. It’s a mindset you can choose, believe it or not. And it’s the opposite of judgement.
3. Empathy. Ask yourself what it would be like to be in that person’s world.
The external work: (What should you be doing physically?)
1. Practice attentive body language. (Good eye contact, the occasional head nod, mirroring and more.)
2. Shhhhhhh! Do not interrupt. (It feels like aggression mixed with arrogance with a dose of “I don’t care about you” thrown in). Also – watch your airtime. Listen more than you talk.
3. Paraphrase. “Are you saying he spends too much time away from home?” “It sounds like you’re saying she doesn’t really care about doing quality work.”
4. Put away distractions. (No, you cannot text and listen at the same time!)
5. Empathetic reflection. Where paraphrasing shows that you’re tracking what the person is saying, empathetic reflection shows that you’re intuiting what the person is feeling. (“Man, that must have felt terrible.”)
6. Don’t be a fixer. Not everyone is looking for advice. For most people, being truly heard feels much better than being instructed, advised, corrected or counseled.
7. Ask questions. We’re not talking the third degree here, but do show your curiosity and engagement by enquiring into their world.
Bottom line – we can all become pro listeners. Of course, for some of us it will take lots of practice, and that's OK. The good news: most of us in the workforce will have dozens of opportunities every day to do exactly that.
For more on this, check out our video on developing great listening skills here.