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20 Tips for better listening

I’ve recently published a number of articles touching on the importance of listening. The general feedback I’ve had is, “Good point. Listening is super important. But what can we do about it?” The ability to improve one’s communications is more commonly understood when it comes to speaking, reading, and writing. Yet, with remarkably little effort, it’s also possible to get better at listening.

There are many benefits to doing so. It might be in the respect people feel in being heard and understood. It might be in helping us to slow down and not overreact. Or it could be in opening up opportunities for colleagues to contribute and develop creative solutions.

I’ve recently been reflecting on my own observations and practices as a comms leader, as well taking time to study listening specialists. Below, in no particular order, are 20 practical tips you and your team can try for better listening:

  1. Be curious: being genuinely interested is the simplest, surest route to better listening. (Note the word “genuinely”).`

  2. Self assess: get a baseline for how much and how well you actually listen versus how much you think you do. Verify by asking other people. Ask them again in a month.

  3. Ask short, open questions: these help minimise talking time for you and maximise it for others.

  4. Practice non-directive listening: avoid hints, nudges, conversational hijacks and leading questions. Allow the other person(s) to take the conversation where they want it to go.

  5. Show understanding: a great encouragement for the other person to open up and talk more is confirmation that they are being heard.

  6. Avoid solutions: often people find more value in being heard than having their problems solved. Much of the time, being heard will either lead them find their own solution or help them realise there was no problem in the first place.

  7. Don't do surface: listening can be tough because our thoughts race ahead faster than the other person can speak. That tempts us into thinking we’ve ‘got it’ and mentally drift away while we nod and smile our surface attention. Watch out and avoid this bear trap.

  8. Seek meaning: very often what the other person says is not what they mean, for a variety of reasons. Acknowledge their words but seek the deeper intention that lies underneath.

  9. Avoid notetaking: taking notes draws previous brainblood away from the ears. The more we take notes, the less we’re able to listen. Better to focus intently and save as much notetaking as possible for after the meeting.

  10. Put your phone away: probably the simplest tip but not necessarily the easiest. Research shows that even leaving a phone face down on the table reduces the quality of conversation.

  11. Step away from distractions: have you ever felt the strain of acknowledging someone who’s turned up at your desk while you desperately try to finish that all-important email or presentation? Better to physically step away from the desk and show them they have your full attention. The short break may well even help produce better work.

  12. Summarise: demonstrate you’ve heard by periodically playing back a non-judgemental, non-editorialised summary.

  13. Don't rush: true listening doesn’t necessarily fit into neat time slots. Allow the other person(s) to express themselves unimpeded and, if needed, offer them a follow up meeting.

  14. It’s the cover up that gets you: we all sometimes blank or get distracted in a conversation. When (not if) that happens, don’t try to cover up - that usually makes things worse. Better to admit it, apologise and ask for a repeat.

  15. Lunch: lunchtime is the workplace’s perfectly-designed opportunity to listen, commonly mistaken as a machinery pitstop.

  16. Replace written updates with voice memos: instead of a weekly written note, record it as a simple voice message. For even greater effect and engagement, add simple sound effects.

  17. Put listening on the agenda: set aside time for your team to discuss the importance of listening and the current quality of listening in your organisation. This simple act might identify several ways to improve. Just being more aware of one’s listening can make it better.

  18. Test your team’s listening: provide an instruction to one team member with a request they pass it on to one more colleague, who in turn passes it on, and so on. Get the final person to share the instruction they received and compare to the original.

  19. Replace Ask Me Anythings with their listening equivalents: while AMAs are meant in part to show leaders were listening, in practice they’re really about leaders talking. For a genuine listening version, swap it out for a TMA (Tell Me Anything - a platform for employees to call in with their own ideas and suggestions) or an IAA (I Ask Anything - where the leader does the asking and the employees get to answer).

  20. Arrange a focus group: annual employee surveys are great, but are necessarily limited in terms of timeliness and depth. Focus groups can provide rich, qualitative insights to help you keep the pulse and course correct in close to real time.

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