Just Listen to Me!

Leadership expert Liz Bentley offers three tips for how to hear what people are really saying.

Published: Jun 28, 2019

The art of listening is a skill that many seem to be losing. At a time when everyone has a "TED Talk" in them, most people are consumed with having their opinions heard and not necessarily hearing others. And even if you aren't a big talker, being silent does not necessarily equate to listening. Listening means understanding and feeling someone's meaning, not just hearing words. It's a complicated but critical skill.

From our earliest years and well into adulthood, we're taught how to speak. We learn how to ask for things, speak publicly with confidence, and have clarity with language. But we often overlook listening skills, which are comprised of our ability to truly hear others. The result: in general, we all are bad listeners. When someone's talking, we often judge the person, tune them out, or listen only so that we can then reply. This can have all sorts of negative repercussions, including missing important details and being disconnected from people.

We all listen differently and often listen for what we want to hear versus what is being said.

Luckily, listening is a skill that we can practice and develop. Here are three steps you can take to train your brain to listen more effectively.

1. Focus.

In this age of mass distraction, listening is more challenging than ever. We have trained our brains to always be doing: texting, emailing, talking, and watching-all while usually multitasking. But effective listening requires full focus and attention. Here's how to avoid a few common pitfalls:

  • No silent talking. Stop talking in your head when someone else is talking out loud. Don't be thinking about your reply or bringing the discussion back to your own life.
  • Drop your ego. Listening is not about you, it's about hearing someone else. To really listen, you have to get your ego and your issues out of the way, no matter the topic or what may be at stake.
  • Quiet your back story. Often we cannot listen to other people's stories because we have our own story running through our heads at the same time. In most cases, we're discounting the person who's speaking or picturing our own version of what we think the reality is: different from theirs.

2. Don't overthink words.

Language is complex and imprecise. While words have a generally agreed-upon definition, they connote different meanings for different people. For example, the phrase "good communicator" can be seen from multiple perspectives. It can be someone who addresses conflict head-on, speaks up in meetings, presents to a group well, or gives guidance clearly. Because we create our own meanings for words, we form opinions and describe people from that position.

Often when people are listening, they get hung up on a couple words they hear and start to interpret the entire dialogue around that focus, often missing the meaning of what is really being said. If I share that my manager's promotion was "quite a surprise," you may go right to wondering whether I think it was deserved or if I just didn't know about it.

These translations get even more complicated in conflict. When emotions are high, they often shut down our ability to listen altogether, thereby hijacking us emotionally from being able to hear another person's perspective.

Everyone has their own version of the truth, and while they may think their version is the real truth, it's only their view. The way we experience something and how we interpret that experience is very personal, often influenced by past experiences, personal feelings, and our personalities. For this reason, we all listen differently and often listen for what we want to hear versus what is being said. To become a better listener, you have to understand the biases you bring to the table-all the way down to the very words being spoken-and do your best to keep them in check.

3. Choose empathy over judgment.

The most important-and most difficult-listening skill to learn is empathy, the ability to really hear what someone is saying without either making it about ourselves or judging them. We're inherently selfish creatures, and while that works for us in many situations, it sabotages empathic listening. To be clear, empathic listening is the ability to feel with someone else, not just sympathize with them. This means being able to hear their issues even if we don't agree with them. For example, if someone is very upset about an issue at work, perhaps even one you greatly disagree with, you can still hear out their views and understand why they feel the way they do. Empathic listening is key to connection. It opens us to letting go of our own back story and staying out of judgment and sympathy-the two qualities that make us think we are better than the other person.

When we learn to listen for meaning, our relationships and decision-making improve as well as our ability to navigate conflict. Keep practicing these techniques. Be active in your listening, staying aware of the common pitfalls, and use it to grow your understanding of people.

The ultimate career guide, from Korn Ferry CEO and New York Times best-selling author, Gary Burnison
Complimentary with every Premium subscription
It Starts With You...
How to take control, uncover your blind spots and make more money.
...But It’s Not About You
Surviving bosses and coworkers, managing, and networking success.
To Earn More, Learn More
Don't be a know-it-all, be a learn-it-all with practical advice and tools.
"Advance gives you a wealth of practical and actionable advice. You'll have what you need to take control of your career, starting today."