The holidays are coming, which means more time spent with friends and family and being more social. The ratio of performing artists vs. non-performing artists is high in my family so I usually feel I have to compete to get a word in during Thanksgiving. Somewhere between the turkey and my cousin’s (pre-rehearsed) quartet performance of “Somewhere over the rainbow” in operatic style is where my opportunity normally lies. This year, I’m going to try something new, I’m going to try to focus more on listening.
The reward for listening to someone has many benefits, however, sometimes you may find in the end it’s the speaker who is most grateful. Listening doesn’t mean you never get to speak. Actually, it’s you who sometimes needs to start. Just asking a simple question can unlock a treasure trove of information.
A few years ago, I was talking to my Great Aunt at a family reunion. This gathering happened to be on D-day so I asked her, “Where were you during the Pearl Harbor Attack?” I thought she would have been old enough to remember, but wasn’t sure. I learned more about my great aunt during that fifteen-minute conversation than what I had gathered from the last 20 years of small talk. After the conversation was through, she told me, “I think this is the best conversation I’ve ever had with you”. My Great Aunt is gone now, but I will treasure what I learned from her experience forever.
Here are a few tips to become a better listener from an article I found online:
- Give the speaker feedback that you’re listening to them. Sometimes just a head nod is fine (for one-on-one interactions) or “uh-uh”. If they are telling you a story, try to reinforce what they are saying with a few short statements like, “Oh wow!” or “that must have been scary”. If you have gone through something similar, wait and make sure they are done before you share your similar experience. Sometimes they are building up to something else, and if you cut them off they might forget their train of thought. When the story is done, comment on how they must feel or have felt, “you must have been scared,” or if they don’t include their feelings ask, “Were you scared?”
- Other times, a little more effort is needed, especially when you can tell from the other person’s body language they are not comfortable with something. Crossed arms and silence is a good indicator. Another is when you can see their jaw muscles flexing. This is when you should make yourself slow down or pause for a second, which is really hard to do when tension is high. If you are at odds and not moving toward a solution, what’s it going to hurt to listen and learn another possibly different perspective? If you plan to take the issue to someone else wouldn’t it be good to have more than one reason for change? If you have heard it before, now you know it’s not just one person’s perspective. I personally find blanket questions like, “what do you think?” or “why?” overwhelming questions that leave me lounge tied. I like it best when the problem is summarized at the beginning or end of the question. Like “Why do you think it’s hard to find parking when you come in?”
- Last but not least, sometimes it’s good to just listen. Sometimes people need to talk something out, and they figure out a solution during the process with very little of your input. Many times people aren’t looking for a solution; they just want to know if you can relate.
I’m learning listening is actually a very powerful tool. Only a few small well-timed acknowledgements are needed for someone to feel comfortable talking to you. When someone enjoys your company, opportunities tend to happen. Try it out, it’s not easy, but worth it.