If you are hoping to improve your communication, the first step is to improve your active listening skills. I don't think anyone sets out to be a bad listener, but all of us can improve. This is one of the most important social skills.
What does that entail? Active listening requires you to pay close attention to what the other person is talking about. When you really listen you connect with people in a more important way. There is a lot of auditory processing that needs to take place.
Here are 5 steps that will help you improve your listening skills.
Step one: Focus.
Remove any distractions. Turn off electronic devices, shut down Slack, Teams and/or Outlook. If you are doing a face-to-face conversation turn off your phone and close your laptop. Even a vibrating phone can pull your attention away from the person who is speaking. Maintain eye contact. Clear your mind. Too often we go right from one conversation to another without thinking about how we haven't mentally left the last conversation. Take a moment to take a deep breath. Check-in with yourself. Are you harboring lingering emotions, are you preoccupied in any way, are you mentally and emotionally prepared to give your undivided attention? If not it may be best to reschedule your conversation.
I was watching the movie, Mr. Rogers, starring Tom Hanks. There is a scene where Mr. Rogers is asking a reporter who is needing to interview him, "Do you know who the most important person in the world is to me right now?" The reporter snorted "No, who?" Mr. Rogers replied "You are. Because I am talking to you right now." It was at that point I knew that I didn't even listen to the people who were the most important to me in that way.
A great way to focus is to say to yourself, "this is the most important person in the world to me right now." I can promise you the other person will feel heard.
Step two: Listen with your ears, eyes, heart, and mind
With your ears listen for the other person's keywords. You know someone's keywords because they will repeat them and sometimes add emphasis.
When you repeat a keyword back to the person they will feel like you understand them.
With your eyes, check for cues. Watch for facial expressions and body language. Body language can be confusing because it can many different meanings. For instance, crossed arms can mean anger, being closed off, or simply the person was cold. When you watch for facial expressions you will be more accurate. Facial expressions are culturally neutral.
With your heart, you are looking to understand how the emotional state of the other person. We can tell how the other person is feeling by their Nonverbal communication: how they sound, what they look like, and the words they use.
With your mind, you will look for what is not being said. Is there the proverbial "elephant in the room"? A good listener will seek to find what is not being spoken.
These are skills you can learn and practice.
Step three: Acknowledge
Acknowledging the other person is a great way to make the other person feel heard and understood. A simple "Hmm hmmm" or a nod of the head will help the other person to see you are paying attention. Paraphrasing and repeating back helps you to understand and clarify what you are hearing.
Step four: Inquire
Asking questions will help you get a deeper understanding of what the other person means and how they are thinking. Even a simple question, that is well thought out is beneficial. Being creative with your questions will help you see the whole picture. Being genuinely curious makes you a much better listener.
Step five: Respond
It is now your opportunity to talk. Make sure your response is clear, complete, concise, correct and compassionate. If your response directly addresses what the person was talking about you will have succeeded in really listening well. Even if you learned nothing surprising from the conversation, you will have deepened your relationship with that person.
Active listening is hard but very much worth the effort.