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Learning (Active) Listening

David Sherry
6 min read
Learning (Active) Listening

With all of the distractions we face today, it's tough to truly be present with people.

It's common to struggle to really listen and put our full attention on others in a conversation:

  • We get stuck in our heads unfocused, daydreaming.
  • We get distracted by things going on around us...(We feel a buzz from an Apple watch and have a hard time not checking.)
  • We jump in without letting others finish.

Yet, we all know that it feels amazing to be heard.

Ever had somebody in your life who you might only see every few months, but when you sit down with them, you feel like, “Wow, they really get me”?

It feels amazing.

If we want to build friendships, if we want to build relationships, if we want to learn to lead and manage other people... truly listening to others (and making them feel heard) creates connection, creates relationships, and ultimately creates a reason for somebody to follow your lead.

We can’t learn to lead until we learn to listen.

I’ve spent the last few years coaching, and leading others through processes that help them grow and change. This practice revolves around the art of active listening – which, you could say is the key to being a great coach. I thought today I’d share a few practices for learning to active listen.

Being Present vs. Being caught in the past or future

“My days are so full that I rush from meeting to meeting. It usually takes me about ten minutes to switch gears. By the time I’m really paying attention, I feel like the conversation is halfway over and I’ve missed the important points.”

One of the first things that prevent active listening is when we don’t actually show up to a conversation.

Oh sure, your body is there, and you might be nodding along to what someone’s saying, but that’s not what I mean. I mean being centered, balanced, grounded. I mean setting aside everything that happened before and everything that’s going to happen later that day to pay attention to what’s happening right now.

There’s magic in preparation. When we take just a few minutes to transition into a conversation with somebody, we can meet them where they are, both physically (the easy part) and psychologically (a bit more challenging).

The key skill is to be willing to change our frame of mind quickly and easily throughout the day. To leave your past or future thinking and come back to being here.

Making Mindful Transitions

What makes this tough are the transition points in our day.

When you finish your workday, when you shift from "Work-mode" into "Relationship-mode" or "Family-mode." That can take a few minutes to get into and can lead you to be disconnected with those around you.

Choose just one of those situations and take a few minutes, maybe five, before that meeting, phone call, or other transition and ask yourself, “What can I do that's going to put me in the right frame of mind for what's happening next?”

I personally find a lot of value in checking in more physically – feeling my feet on the ground, feeling my breath, or taking note of the surroundings like I would as a photographer.

Enjoying Pauses and Space

“I sometimes feel as though I am super excited to hear the fun stuff in a story and want to prove that I’m listening by sharing similar stories.”

Imagine someone’s telling you about a hard time they’re having at work. They have an idea for how to expand their role, but their micromanaging boss doesn’t want to let them give even a few hours per week to try it out.

You get it! The same thing happened to you!

So, when the person takes a sip of water, you jump in and tell your story.

Your intention is to be helpful, to share what worked for you, and to affirm their experience... Instead, the conversation ends up being about you, the other person doesn’t feel heard, and they don’t come away with any sense of how to handle the situation.

In trying to create common ground, you’ve actually claimed all the attention for yourself.

You know you could have handled the situation differently, and you have a hunch that it’s about more than just “not interrupting.”

That’s where silence comes in. I don’t mean stony or ambivalent silence here; I’m thinking of a kind of quiet that creates space for another person to share.

If you struggle with focusing on the person talking and not interrupting them with your own thoughts and opinions, you can break that habit by intentionally giving more space than is typically comfortable for you.

There are lots of natural pauses in a conversation. Someone stops to take a breath. Or to think. Or to take a bite of a sandwich.

See if you can enjoy the silence and puases.

Stay quiet – let there be a relaxed moment... and give space for them to continue without using filler words like "yeah" or "uh-huh".

It might feel completely artificial to do this, but it will soon become second nature. And it might also give you the chance to notice that you’ve been jumping in and filling the silence without even realizing it.

Finding Everything Interesting

“I find the most difficult part is to keep the focus on the other person. The normal tendency I believe is to think about oneself, about the impression you are making, about whether you will be accepted..."

Let's say that the last meeting of the day is with your Head of Marketing to discuss a new idea she’s been testing. You love the idea and can’t wait to get started, but when you suggest the following week, she mentions she might have to go see her parents then. That’s nice, you think, quickly offering the week after and creating an invite even though she’s gone a bit silent.

Then, the following week, when she has to cancel the meeting, you find out her mom has been diagnosed with cancer. You think back to your conversation and regret missing that opportunity for connection.

No matter what people are saying (and whether or not it’s interesting to you), they’re giving you a lot of information.

Maybe they’re focused on your shared agenda. But maybe they also drop hints about other topics they’d like to discuss.

The key is to see each and every word as somebody sharing their perspective and their experience. If we can just only notice what people are truly trying to share with us, we can truly hear what they are trying to say.

Focus on the specifics

If you really listen to the words people are saying, if you really listen to the stories that they tell, it's almost like watching a movie or listening to a great radio show.

There's so much richness not only in what they say but also in how they say it.

For example, some people express themselves visually. They want to talk about something they saw or they use interesting visual metaphors or they talk often about their vision (and when they say, vision, they literally mean vision.) Other people speak from a place of feeling. They might say things like, “I felt like that wasn't necessarily right,” or “I could tell intuitively that that was something I wanted to do.”

We can start to understand somebody's internal world better based on the words they're using.

And one critical skill I’ve developed as a coach is to not just pay attention to the general idea of what someone thinks they’re telling you but also, and maybe more importantly, the subtext of what someone is saying.

Sometimes that means noticing funny details or other moments in conversation that seem less connected to what you thought you were talking about.

Maybe they keep going back to a vacation they went on when they were a child.  Did they remember the beach? Did they remember the family time? Maybe they bring up their family a lot in conversation and you take a note to yourself and think, “this person really values family. They keep bringing them up.”

If we can see the what and the how of communication as a reflection of self, we can really get a better sense of somebody else's internal world.

We're not just giving and receiving information. We’re putting together a puzzle from all of the details and the ways that that person is communicating with us.

Give Your Attention Freely

Being someone who can be present, and truly listening in a distracted world is a superpower, which can help you stand out as an entrepreneur, a leader, and in your relationships.

It isn’t so much a skill as an art. Hearing people, understanding them, and then making yourself understood isn’t only a set of steps you can take or a clear process you can implement in one day.

It's more of a practice to return to.

What do you find works best when it comes to active listening with your friends or co-workers? What do you struggle with most?

Hit reply and let me know.

xx David