If you are like most people, you probably believe you are a great listener. The problem is that everyone else that you have to deal with needs to improve listening skills, right? The truth is that this often-used term has two parts — “Listening” and “Skills”. We often overlook the second part. Skills are those strengths that we develop with consistent focus over time.
When I was a kid, our little town had a community center with a basketball gym. I wasn’t a member, by my best friend was. He went there three to four times a week to play ball with other kids. One weekend, I spent the night at his house, and he invited me to go to the gym with him. I spent 10 minutes or practicing a few shots. Some other kids arrived, and we divided into teams. Within the first couple of trips up and down the court, I realized that I had the least skill on the court. (Just as an FYI, I never did develop this skill.)
My point is that the other kids were much batter than me at basketball because the practiced. I didn’t. People who are good listeners are good listeners because they practice. You can be a good listener as well with just a little practice, yourself.
Improve Listening Skills at Work — The Four Levels of Listening
In order to improve listening skills, step one is to determine what good listening skills are. In our leadership classes, we introduce four levels of listening. The levels are listed below from the worst listening skills to the best.
- Level One: Ignore the Other Person Completely. This level isn’t really listening, but we tend to do it a lot.
- Level Two: Just Pretend to Listen to the Other Person. We do this when we are trying to be courteous, but we really aren’t interested.
- Level Three: Selectively Listen to Your Coworkers. This is the level in which we spend the most time at work. Oddly enough, we tend to do this to save time.
- Level Four: Attentively Listen to Your Team. This is the highest level of listening. The more we focus on this level the better listeners we will be.
Ignore the Other Person Completely
The first level of listening isn’t actually listening at all. This is the level where we are so preoccupied with whatever we are doing, we don’t even hear the other person. I have to admit, I tend to spend a lot of my time, inadvertently, at this level. It’s not on purpose. I feel like I’m a really goal-oriented person. So, when I get focused on accomplishing a goal, I tend to get tunnel vision and block out everything else.
Last week, I was getting ready to deliver a webinar. Time had gotten away from me, so I was a little rushed. About 19 minutes into the process, I looked up from my screen to see my assistant waving her hands like she was flagging in a jet. I jumped with a start because I hadn’t actually realized she was there. Next, she erupted in laughter. “You realize that I have been speaking to you for the last four minutes,” she said. I hadn’t. I was in my zone.
when someone is ignoring another person, they may be doing something else such as looking at a cell phone or typing on a keyboard. In addition, the person may turn away from the speaker while he or she is talking. In extreme cases, the so-called listener may just walk away.
Just Pretending to Listen
The second listening level is when someone just pretends to listen. In a lot of these situations, the listener is really trying to be nice but just isn’t interested in the conversation. One of the ladies who clean my teeth at the dentist is really sweet. Bless her heart, she is just so nice. She chats during the entire process. It wouldn’t be so bad if she was chatting about something interesting. However, most often, the topics are so bland that I tend to zone out pretty quickly. By this point, I should know everything about her, but I don’t. I don’t because in most cases, I’m only pretending to listen. (Yes, I know that is really bad.)
When people are only pretending to listen, they will often nod and smile, but certain things give them away. For instance, from time to time, they will interject things that are inappropriate. “My grandmother just passed away.” “Really, how’s she doing?”
The big thing that you will see, though, is when the person interrupts you to try to change the subject. So, if you want to improve listening skills, try to avoid pretending to listen. Be genuinely interested in the other person.
This level, selectively listening, is the most dangerous in the business world. It is also the level that we often slip into when we are in a stressful situation. When we listen at this level, we often tune in and out to the conversation based on what we think is important to us. In our defense, we do this to try to save time. However, the habit actually tends to cost us time in the long run.
People who are listening at this level will tune in and out. They will also listen until they have enough information to offer advice. Then, they will usually give this advice. If the listener is impatient, he or she may try to speed up the speaker.
You can sometimes recognize if you have been consistently listening to someone else at this level. The person may respond with, “You keep interrupting me,” or “You never listen to me.” If you hear these words from a significant other or a coworker, chances are, you have been selectively listening to that person, and he or she is now fed up.
If You Want to Improve Your Listening Skills, Be an Attentive Listener.
Attentive listeners focus more on the speaker, though. When someone who has great listening skills is paying attention to a speaker, good communication is more likely to occur. This skill takes practice, though. However, over the years, our instructors have been able to identify a few “listening hacks” to help. If you really want to improve your listening skills, try these ideas.
- Look the Person in the Eye — Eye contact is critical to good communication. During any conversation, our minds will start to wander from time to time. However, if you maintain good eye contact, your mind is less likely to wander. The person speaking will also feel more like you are listening at a higher level.
- Keep Your Shoulders Parallel — People feel like you are listening better if the two parties are face to face. I actually moved my desk so that I face the door to improve communication.
- Match the Standing/Seated Position of the Speaker — Basically if the person who is speaking is standing and you are sitting, offer him or her a seat.
- Ask Questions for Clarity — Interrupting the speaker is not necessarily bad. In fact, if you interrupt to ask a clarifying question, that is really good.
Fun and Funny Listening Skill Activities to Improve Office Communication
If you want to have fun in a staff meeting and improve communication at the same time, try this listening activity. Explain the four-levels of listening to your team. Make sure to include examples of what people do when they are listening at each level. Then have your team partner up with each other.
Once everyone has a partner, ask one of the partners to tell the other one something important that is going on. However, the listener must either totally ignore the partner, pretend to listen, or selectively listen. The partner can’t listen attentively yet. Whatever level at which the partner chooses to listen, he or she must stay in that level for at least 30 seconds. Give them 30 seconds to do the exercise. At the end of the time, ask the speaker to guess the listening level of the listener.
Within a few seconds, the group will start to laugh as the experiment in the exercise. The laughter comes, though, because the things that they are seeing the listener do are very relatable. They see these things every day at work (and at home).
Alternate roles so that each partner gets to be both speaker and listener. Once both people have gone, debrief the exercise a little. Ask the group what they realized during the activity. Finally, ask them to do the exercise again, but this time, listen attentively.