Listening is an art. Some are good at it. A few are great at it. Most are not. Almost all wives will say their husbands don’t listen well. And survey after survey of employees say that their leadership does not listen to them. Listening is one of the keys to developing relationships. It’s a strong indicator of emotional intelligence. To be a successful leader, you must be a better listener.
I love word pictures. Word pictures bring boring ideas to life. Learning to be a better listener sounds like a boring subject. No, check that… it IS a boring subject. But a word picture brings it to life. Jeff Foley, in an episode of the Ken Blanchard leadership podcast (November 12, 2008), used this phrase. To be a good listener, “Squint with your ears”. I love that! What a great image.
I don’t know how old you are. I’m now in my 50s. My eyesight is still pretty good (thanks to LASIK). But sometimes I can’t quite make out the fine print. Somewhere around 8 pt font gets a little hard. Especially if the lighting isn’t good.
Now, reading glasses makes the most sense. And, yes, I do have reading glasses. In fact, I have several pairs. I keep a pair on my desk, on my nightstand. I carry a pair in my computer backpack so I have them with me all the time.
But I’m also lazy. So when I need to read something, my first instinct is to read it without assistance. And if the font is too small, or the lighting too dark, I know what I’ll do naturally. I’ll lean in toward the document. I’ll try to put myself in the best lighting as possible. And I’ll squint. I squint my eyes to help focus. I don’t know the science behind it. (Some optometrist can weigh in and explain it to us if you’d like). I know it’s real because at my optometrist office they have this little “eye paddle” with holes in it that they have me hold up to my eyes. It has the same effect as squinting.
By the way, the real name of this device is an “occluder”, but I didn’t want to sound like I was showing off. But the purpose of the occluder is to focus the light, removing the effects of refractive errors such as myopia. Now hold that thought, we’ll come back to that.
Now do that with your ears
So hold that picture in your mind. The picture of what you do when you squint to read. You lean in. You put yourself in good lighting. And you squint in order to focus.
Let’s repeat that process with our ears. Let’s take it one step at a time.
The idea is to lean in and pay attention. By learning in, you are telling the person that they are your only focus. They are the center of your world.
Leaning in reduces distractions. The closer you are to the source you are listening to, the less likely outside “noise” will get in the way. When we are listening to someone, we should intentionally try to reduce extraneous noise. When I meet with someone in a public spot like a coffee shop or a restaurant, I try to find a spot that has the least noise from the crowd, the street as well as the speakers. I also try to position us in a spot where we are less impacted by traffic flow from the kitchen or with other customers. This little trick allows me to stay more focused on the person I am meeting with.
Leaning in also demonstrates caring and concern. It demonstrates passion about the conversation and the person. (Now we should always be cautious about personal space and maintaining a “safe zone”.) But what I see is by far the opposite. Most people in conversations are leaning away. The body signal of this posture is detached. The distance serves as an invisible barrier. Leaning away demonstrates a lack of trust, in you, are in a somewhat defensive posture.
Position For Good Listening
Just like you need good lighting for reading. You need to find a good location for listening. If you are in a public spot, you may need to move away from the crowd or the noise. If you are in a place with loudspeakers, move away to a place where they aren’t as loud. And if there is a lot of foot traffic, try to find a place with the fewest distractions.
This may sound like an impossibility to some of you. If you live in a big city, the idea of finding a quiet spot seems like a dream. Remember that this should be taken as a relative position. Find a place that is relatively more free from distractions than most. For example, at a particular coffee shop I like, I sit outside whenever possible. There are some more distractions due to being outside. But relatively speaking, it’s much quieter and less busy than sitting inside.
Focus on Them
Now, squint. Just like your eyes can focus on the fine print. You are now positioned to “squint” with your ears.
Pay attention to your body positioning. Position your feet as to face them. I sometimes catch myself sitting at an angle, perhaps due to the position of the table leg or the chairs we are in. I find it much harder to pay attention if my body is facing a different angle. We know that this is a subtle body language which tells the person that you are focusing on something else.
Actively listen to every word. If you don’t understand something, ask a clarifying question. Hang on every word. Watch them and detect their body language. Detect the tone of their facial expressions and validate them against their vocal inflections.
Start to be a better listener TODAY
These tips are easy to follow. Anyone can do the things I have suggested. Start with some of your closest friends and family. They will notice a difference. But they should be the ones you are most interested in doing this with. Then expand it to your business meetings. Treat clients and prospects this way and you will see a great improvement in those relationships as well.
I coach leaders on how to be more effective in their relationships. As a leadership coach, I have learned to listen to my clients with intentionality. If you want to learn more about how I have learned to do this, or would like me to help you, contact me today.