We’ve all been told we could be better listeners and that listening is important. But what does that really mean and how do we do it? Let’s round up the research…
Why it’s important
Nobody likes a conversational narcissist but we’ve all been one:
Conversational narcissists always seek to turn the attention of others to themselves. Your first reaction to this statement is likely, “Oh, I don’t do that, but I know someone who does!” But not so fast. Conversational narcissism typically does not manifest itself in obviously boorish plays for attention; most people give at least some deference to social norms and etiquette. Instead, it takes much more subtle forms, and we’re all guilty of it from time to time. Everyone has felt that itch where we couldn’t wait for someone to stop talking so we could jump in; we pretended to be listening intently, but we were really focusing on what we were about to say once we found an opening.
What makes teams at the office smart isn’t combined IQ, it’s social skills, with the ability to listen being paramount:
What do you hear about great groups? Not that the members are all really smart but that they listen to each other. They share criticism constructively. They have open minds. They’re not autocratic. And in our study we saw pretty clearly that groups that had smart people dominating the conversation were not very intelligent groups.
What two qualities make great salespeople? One of them is the ability to listen:
…successful salesmen must have two qualities, empathy and ego drive: enough empathy to listen and understand what is in the customer’s head, and enough ego to close the sale.
What made subjects in a research study be rated instantly more likable? Just listening to the other person and saying “tell me more.”
Not listening ends relationships. And from a more strategic point of view, if people don’t think you’re listening to them it’s almost impossible to change their mind.
So what do you have to do?
Keep in mind that good listening is “non-evaluative.” Don’t judge or analyze what the person is saying at first. Just focus on trying to understand their perspective.
What’s the first thing you have to do? Shut your mouth. Should be obvious but if it were, you might not be reading this.
Here’s the important part: just shutting up is not enough.
Listening isn’t just listening. It’s letting the other person know you’re listening.
This is “active listening.” It has three components: paraphrasing, inquiry and acknowledgment:
• Paraphrase: “It sounds as if you’re satisfied with our component overall. But if I understand correctly, you need me to assure you that we can increase production if large orders come in. You’re also concerned about our proposed per-unit price and our willingness to work with you to create an acceptable arrangement. Have I captured your main points?”
• Inquire: “You mentioned that you found our proposed price to be unacceptable. Help me understand how you came to this conclusion. Let’s also talk about how we might set up a pricing structure that you find more reasonable.”
• Acknowledge: “It sounds as if you’re quite disappointed with various elements of our proposal, so much so that you have serious concerns about whether we’ll be able to work together over the long haul.”
But does this really work?
It works in relationships. Active listening is sexy:
The technology developed by Sandy Pentland and his colleagues at MIT Media Lab counts the number of times people say “uh-huh,” “yeah,” “yup,” “aha,” “okay,” and “I see” when they’re listening to someone speak. In Pentland’s study, the more short interjections a man made, the more attractive he was to the woman who was talking.
Guess what the top ranked telemarketers all had in common?
Better telemarketers consistently “spoke at an appropriate rate; emphasized important points with changes in pitch and volume; acknowledged or paraphrased what the customer said; used short, affirmative words and sounds to indicate that he/she listened to the customer; and used language the customer could understand.”
Active listening is the first thing FBI hostage negotiators use to de-escalate incidents and save lives.
BCSM consists of five stages: active listening, empathy, rapport, influence, and behavioral change. Progression through these stages occurs sequentially and cumulatively. Specifically, the negotiator proceeds in sequence from Stage 1 (active listening) to Stage 5 (behavioral change). However, in order to establish rapport (Stage 3) with the subject, active listening skills (Stage 1) and empathy (Stage 2) must first be demonstrated (and maintained throughout) by the negotiator. As this process continues, influence (Stage 4) and behavioral change (Stage 5) follow. The latter stage refers to the successful resolution of the crisis that can only occur when, and only when, the previous stages have been carried out successfully.
Gary Noesner, former chief negotiator with the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group and author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator has discussed the use of active listening techniques:
1) Minimal Encouragements
During negotiations with a subject, negotiators must demonstrate that they are listening attentively and are focused on the subject’s words. Negotiators can convey these qualities either through body language or brief verbal replies that relate interest and concern. The responses need not be lengthy. By giving occasional, brief, and well-timed vocal replies, negotiators demonstrate that they are following what the subject says. Even relatively simple phrases, such as “yes,” “O.K.,” or “I see,” effectively convey that a negotiator is paying attention to the subject. These responses will encourage the subject to continue talking and gradually relinquish more control of the situation to the negotiator.
Paraphrasing consists of negotiators’ repeating in their own words the meaning of subjects’ messages back to them. This shows that negotiators are not only listening but also understanding what the subject is conveying…
Summing up: what do you need to do to be a great listener? What steps should you follow in your next conversation?
- Listen to what they say. Don’t interrupt, disagree or “evaluate.”
- Nod your head, and make brief acknowledging comments like “yes” and “uh-huh.”
- Without being awkward, repeat back the gist of what they just said, from their frame of reference.
- Inquire. Ask questions that show you’ve been paying attention and that move the discussion forward.
They will feel like you really understand them and you probably will — because while they were speaking you weren’t trying to figure out why they’re wrong or misguided. You were trying to understand their perspective and communicated that to them with your behavior.