Five Steps for Becoming a Better Listener

In our recent blog posts about improving your EQ, we mentioned that listening to others is a key component of building a healthy Emotional Intelligence. As it turns out, effective listening doesn’t come easily to a lot of us. Most people speak at a rate of about 125 words per minute, but the human brain can process 400 words per minute.  Since only 25% of our mental capacity is being used, it’s no wonder our minds tend to wander! This means we have to make a conscious effort to focus on what others are saying in order to really hear and understand them. When we really listen to our colleagues, we show them that we care about their perspective, making them more likely to listen to us in return. Here’s how you can improve your listening skills in the workplace:

Pay attention to how much you’re talking

Next time you find yourself in a conversation with a coworker, take some time to note how much you’re doing the speaking. Try to estimate what percentage of the conversation was made up of your talking - and then add 20%. We tend to underestimate how much talking we do, so if you think you’re talking for half of the conversation, it’s probably closer to 70%.

Get in the right mindset for listening

Many of us have a tendency to start thinking about what we’re going to say next in a conversation. However, this means we’re ignoring what the other person is saying and potentially missing the emotional component of their words, making us appear cold and uncaring. Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski has found that there are two distinct mindsets: thinking and doing. When we listen to what others are saying, we’re in the “thinking” mindset; when we’re planning our next contribution to the conversation, we’re in a “doing” mindset. If you find yourself formulating your response to what a colleague is saying, stop and shift back into your “thinking” mindset so you can focus on your colleague.

Avoid bad listening habits

Studies show that many of us have developed bad listening habits, partly because we are not taught listening skills from an early age in the same way we are taught reading, writing, and comprehension skills.   Bad listening habits cause us to become distracted and drift off in thought.  Some of these bad habits include focussing on how the speaker is delivering his or her message rather than on the message itself; thinking about how the speaker is dressed or appears; becoming fixated on a key point made by the speaker with which we disagree; dismissing the topic as uninteresting and then drifting off into other thoughts; and glossing over any topics that are difficult to understand.  By making an effort to relax and not judge the message until you have heard it all, you will be able to summarise the speaker’s main points while having a well-founded response.  

Get your body language right

It’s certainly important to make sure you’re listening effectively, but you also want to project that you’re listening to the person who is speaking. Avoid “adversarial” poses like standing with your hands on your hips or crossing your arms in front of you. Try leaning forward, maintaining eye contact, and changing your facial expressions in response to what you hear. The key is moving enough to show interest, but not so much that you appear fidgety.

Respond, don’t react

While we certainly don’t want to spend an entire conversation planning out our responses when we should be listening, we also don’t want to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. This can be especially challenging when we hear bad news, or something we strongly disagree with. However, you could end up interrupting the other person before they’ve finished their thought, and you certainly won’t give the impression that you’ve been listening carefully. Make your mantra “respond, don’t react.” Even if your response is, “I need some time to think about what you’ve just said,” you’re showing that you heard the other person and you’re taking what they said seriously.

Effective listening will not only improve your EQ, but it will help build a more positive, collaborative workplace. When speaking with colleagues, spend more time listening than talking, and dedicate your full attention to listening, rather than thinking about what you’re going to say next. You’ll find that you’ll have an easier time understanding your coworkers, and they’ll listen to you more intently in return.