As many of you know, I’ve written a lot about the importance of active listening in the storytelling process. Active listening is useful in a myriad of ways: improved verbal comprehension, increased sensitivity to friends and coworkers, and enhanced creativity and problem solving abilities. But how exactly do you become a better listener? What steps or processes can you implement to glean more information from conversations and feel better connected to the people around you?
The answer is very straightforward: listen for stories.
To help you uncover stories and become a better conversationalist, networker and public speaker in the process, here are “5 Tips to Becoming a Better Listener”. Follow these guidelines and people will be lining up to talk to you before you know it.
1. Check In With Your Thoughts.
The first step to becoming a better listener is to do a quick check of your mental state. Are you feeling happy or sad? Angry or excited? Are you dwelling on a past conversation or mulling over something you need to do in the future? Ask yourself: What’s preventing you from being present in the moment? If you take a moment to do a quick self-diagnostic before entering into a conversation or telling a story, you’ll become more present and connected immediately.
2. Check In With Your Body.
After you’ve cultivated an awareness of your thoughts, take a moment to connect with your body and the impact it’s having on your listening. Are you feeling tension or pain in any area? Is your breathing heavy and strained or easy and light? How’s your posture? If you’re struggling to connect with your thoughts (step 1), reverse the order and check in with your body first. As you become aware of any areas of tightness or pain, take a series of slow, deep abdominal breaths (”in through your nose and out through your mouth”). Your abdomen should expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale. Concentrate on your breathing as you go through the process; this will ease your mind by removing any distracting thoughts while simultaneously dissipating any physical discomfort you may be experiencing. You’ll instantly feel more relaxed.
3. Check In With Your Conversation Partner.
Once you’re fully present with your mind and body, cultivate an awareness of your conversation partner or audience. How is the person standing or sitting? Is the person making consistent eye contact or the person avoiding your gaze? If the person is speaking, what sort of tone is the person using? Is there any variation in the tone? By shifting your attention onto your conversation partner, you’ll be able to get out of your head while simultaneously discovering how the person is reacting to you in the moment.
4. Listen for Judgments, Explanations, and Analysis.
As your conversation partner is speaking, listen for the judgments, explanations, and conclusions the person is drawing. Judgments often take the form of “positive” adjectives (i.e. good, bad, smart, stupid, etc), but can also take the form of comparative (better, worse, smarter, etc…) or superlative (best, worst, smartest, etc) statements. As the person talks, take note of when s/he uses these statements. Often judgments come with explanations, justifications, or rationalizations attached to them (i.e. “She was the best boss because she always inspired confidence”; “The reason he’s a terrible employee is because he doesn’t follow directions”). Explanations are often followed by conclusions (”The conclusion is…” or “The moral of the story is…”) that offer a logical basis for the judgments and explanations. If you listen for these rhetorical tics, you’ll have a better sense of what’s happening cognitively, psychologically, and emotionally with your conversation partner. It will ground you in the present, which in turn will reconnect you with your conversation partner.
5. Clarify Confusing Points and Ask Questions to Elicit Stories.
The final step to improving your listening is to request clarification and ask follow-up questions to illuminate stories. Whenever you hear judgments, explanations and analysis, you have the opportunity to ask follow-up questions to unpack your conversation partner’s experience. The goal here is to get additional information about a situation (i.e. what happened), NOT to illicit further judgments, explanations and analysis. I strongly recommend avoiding “Why?” questions, since answers to “why” questions often start off with “Because…” Instead, rephrase “why” questions as: “In what way is…” or “Is there a reason for…?” Instead of getting a simple justification or explanation, your conversation partner is more likely to respond with a story. And then you’re in a more interesting, engaging and fun conversation.
Not a bad conversation starter, right?