New York Times Guides for Living Smarter: How to Be a Better Listener
December 10, 2018
Listening can feel at times like a lost art, maybe because we are communicating so much more electronically. That’s too bad, because being a good listener can help you in every aspect of your life – with family and friends, and with your colleagues at work. Want to up your listening game? Here are some tips I’ve learned from conducting hundreds of interviews over a 30-year career in journalism.
You know the feeling. You’re talking to someone, and you can tell from their body language and distant look in their eye that the person is not really listening to you. You realize they’re more interested in an audience than a conversation, so they’re simply waiting for you to stop talking so that they can talk.
Distracted listening may not be as dangerous as distracted driving, but it’s a big problem. Our cellphones are constantly tugging at our attention, pulling our brains out of the moment — who is reaching out to me and what do they want? — creating a subtle shift in the conversation. (The other person, consciously or subconsciously, knows you’ve tuned out.) The same thing happens on phone calls, too. You can almost always tell if someone is checking their email or doing something else when you’re talking to them (brief lags in their responses are a giveaway).
CLEAR YOUR MIND
Many of the 525 leaders I interviewed for the Corner Office office column for The New York Times shared memorable stories and smart insights about the importance of listening – a lesson that many of them said they learned the hard way.
Think of listening as a form of meditation. You have to clear your mind of everything else, so you can focus entirely on what the other person is saying. Make sure your phone is off or away from you. If you’re at your desk, turn off your monitor or turn your chair around so you’re not distracted by the screen. Try to focus fully on the other person, pushing away the thoughts about the next meeting you have to go to or a looming deadline.
“When you have a conversation with somebody, you’re not going to get the nuances of the conversation if you’re doing too many things,” said Michael Mathieu, now the C.E.O. of BeAlive Media. “If somebody picks up the phone, stop your email, stop what you’re doing, listen and have that conversation with the person and then move on. I try to be present so I can enjoy the richness and quality of interactions with people. Most people can’t multitask without losing something in each of those tasks.”
THE IMPROV APPROACH
If meditation isn’t your thing, use this trick: Pretend you’re doing improv, and that you can only react
in the moment to what the other person is saying, rather than planning out the next three steps in the conversation. Mark Fuller, the C.E.O. of Wet Design, which makes elaborate fountain installations like the one in front the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, hired an improv instructor at his company to help everyone be better listeners.
Mr. Fuller’s logic: “Improv, if properly taught, is really about listening to the other person, because there’s no script. It’s about responding. If you think about it, if you have an argument with your wife or husband, most of the time people are just waiting for the other person to finish so they can say what they’re waiting to say. So usually they’re these serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening. That doesn’t work in improv. If we’re on the stage, I don’t know what goofball thing you’re going to say, so I can’t be planning anything. I have to really be listening to you so I can make an intelligent — humorous or not — response.”
The best kind of listening is about being comfortable not knowing what you’re going to say next, or what question you might ask. Trust that you’ll think of something in the moment based on what the other person just said. That will send a powerful signal to the other person that you’re truly listening to them.
No Judgments or Agendas
Listening, done well, is an act of empathy. You are trying to see the world through another person’s eyes, and to understand their emotions. That’s not going to happen if you are judging the other person as they’re talking. It will dampen the conversation, because you will be sending all sorts of subtle nonverbal cues that you have an opinion about what they’re saying. If you go into the discussion with the main goal of understanding their perspective, free of any judgment, people will open up to you, because they will feel they can trust you to respect what they are saying.
QUESTION YOUR MOTIVATION
So the first step is to listen with no judgments. And when you do talk, be honest with yourself about what’s really motivating you to say what you’re about to say. There is a useful acronym to keep in mind when you’re talking to someone: W.A.I.T., which stands for “Why Am I Talking?”
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t contribute to the conversation. It’s just a good reminder to be self-aware of why you’re talking. Is it about the other person — to show them that you understand what they’re saying, because maybe you’ve had a similar experience? Or is there subtext of needing to brag a bit? It’s a particularly good rule to keep in mind for anybody in a management or leadership position, because anything you say can quickly overwhelm a discussion and make people shut down. But it’s true for everyone, as well.
“You can’t have an agenda,” Joel Peterson, the chairman of JetBlue Airways and founder of Peterson Partners, an investment firm, told me. “When you have your own agenda when you’re listening to someone, what you’re doing is you’re formulating your response rather than processing what the other person is saying. You have to really be at home with yourself. If you have these driving needs to show off or be heard or whatever, then that kind of overwhelms the process. If you’re really grounded and at home with yourself, then you can actually get in the other person’s world, and I think that builds trust.”
Show You’re Listening
In 1957, two American psychologists, Carl Rogers and Richard Farson, coined the term “active listening” in a paper of the same name. Perhaps it’s debatable whether adding the word “active” is simply redundant. After all, if active listening is a particular kind of listening, then by definition there is another kind called “passive listening.” And is that really listening if you’re talking with someone?
Nevertheless, the phrase has endured for more than 70 years as a popular shorthand for the idea that you can and should make an extra effort to show people that you’re listening to them, rather than just sitting quietly. And that happens with body language, whether you’re leaning closer or tilting your head or arching an eyebrow at the right moment. All these signals help show the other person that you’re listening to them.
USE BODY LANGUAGE
Showing that you’re listening is not a natural impulse for everybody. Lisa Gersh, the former C.E.O. of Goop.com and Alexander Wang, shared a memorable story of how she learned the power of “the nod.” She had spent her early career as a lawyer, and had to completely change her listening approach when she joined Oxygen Media in its early days as a start-up.
“As a lawyer for many years before that, I was not known as a creative person,” she said in our interview. “When you’re in a legal or business meeting, you don’t egg people on. You pretend like you don’t care. It’s almost like buying a house. You sit with your arms crossed and you pretend like you’re not excited. And it could be the greatest idea in the world, but you don’t want to show your hand.”
“But a creative meeting is different,” she added. “If someone’s coming in with their creative idea, they’re baring their creative soul. And if you sit there with your arms crossed and you don’t say anything, they’re really not going to give it to you.”
“My partner at Oxygen took me to every meeting early on because I didn’t know anything about the business. At one point, I said to her: ‘You never take me to the creative meetings. Why not?’ She said:‘Because you sit with your arms folded across your chest and it’s not good for creative meetings. You have to learn ‘the nod.’ I said, ‘What’s the nod?’”
“And the nod is when you lean in and you nod your head and you keep nodding your head when someone is pitching an idea. That way, they get more and more excited about the pitch and they give you their best work.”