The past two weeks I shared part 1 and part 2 of a list of how to be a bad listener. These were inspired by a list from the book entitled “The Listening Life” by Adam S. McHugh, McHugh also offers some suggestions on how to be a good listener. In this blog, I highlight some good listening skills that you can practice and put into action. There are two techniques we will share today,, “pushing the arrow” and “slow listening”.
Good listening skills #1 – Pushing the Arrow
The first of our good listening skills is called “pushing the arrow”. Imagine in your conversations if there is a piece of cardboard with an arrow on a spinner attached to it. (Much like you would see in many of the old board games I grew up with.) Except in this case, the arrow only goes two directions, one is pointed toward you, the other pointed toward the other person. Your goal in this game is to keep the arrow pointing in the direction of the other person.
Another image to think about is the possession arrow in college basketball. (It is March Madness season, after all). In college basketball, the game starts with a tip-off. Typically the tallest player (or at least the best jumper) of each team square off at the center of the court. The referee tosses the ball up in the air, and each player jumps to tip the ball to their teammate. In the original method of the game, every time there was a “held ball” (meaning that a player from each team had control of the ball at the same time) there would be a “jump ball”. Those two players would essentially do the same thing that they did at the beginning of the game. This was also repeated at the beginning of every period or half. Many years ago, the rules were changed to the “alternate possession rule”, which means that every time there is a jump ball situation, the decision is ruled an arrow indicator kept by the officials. The arrow alternates back and forth on each situation in order to even out the opportunities to possess the ball.
How “pushing the arrow” works
So, imagine you have this arrow (whether the spinner or basketball version, I don’t care), and it is on the table between the two of you. The arrow stays focused on the person for who the attention is currently placed. So if the other person is talking about their weekend, their children or their business issues, the focus is on them. But when we are talking about our business or our interests, the arrow is pointing back at us.
The concept is simple. Every time attention focuses on you, turn the arrow back to them, to their needs, to their interest. Make it your goal to not allow the arrow to stay on your side more than a few minutes at a time. Don’t allow them to stack questions and keep the focus on you.
Tips for “pushing the arrow”
Start with open-ended questions. Open-ended questions cannot be answered with “yes” or “no” or any other one-word answer. You want them to have to think about what they are saying and deliver more than simple one-liners. Questions that require them to dig deep is one method. Questions like “how did that make you feel?” will garner a much deeper answer than “That stinks, doesn’t it?”. Questions that make them come up with a list is another way of making them think. “What are your three biggest challenges right now?”.
Active listening is another technique. Lean forward, participate in the conversation. Acknowledge their points (without stealing the attention). And most importantly, respond actively with what they are saying.
Stack questions, by digging a little deeper each time. “What’s your biggest challenge with sales?”. Then follow with, “what have you tried to do to fix it?”. Followed by “what has worked for you?”. Then “what is the most frustrating thing about this?”.
Finally, use “reflection” techniques to repeat back and assess whether you have understood them correctly. This has the double-purpose of pushing the arrow back to them, and allowing you to confirm that you have understood their point.
Good listening skills #2 – Slow listening
The second of the good listening skills is “slow listening”. Slow listening is a little harder concept to grasp. It means “listening for understanding”. You must pay deep attention. This is “active listening on steroids”. You may need to ask them to repeat and clarify info. Take your time and don’t rush. Allow them to fully express themselves and give them plenty of time for follow-up and clarifications.
Slow listening goes beyond just listening with your ears. It involves listening with your entire body. Lean in. Focus on them. Make eye contact. Don’t get distracted.
Watch for non-verbal clues. We use the term “body language”. Well if it’s a language, we should listen to it. McHugh asks, “Why don’t we use the phrase ‘body listening’?”
Slow listening takes energy. Staying focused on another person in a conversation takes emotional and psychological energy. It is not easy.
I have to admit that I struggle with this one. But one thing I do know is that when I come across someone who practices this, it absolutely empowers me. Consequently, I leave the conversation feeling appreciated, listened to, and important. When you do this for someone else, you leave them with these same feelings.
How Can I Put This Into Practice?
My first suggestion is just that, “Practice”. To develop good listening skills, you have to practice. First, I would start with a close friend, your spouse or someone you work with. Try it first without telling them what you are doing. See if they notice something different. Ask them afterward how they felt after the conversation. Here’s a hint, if they did not notice it, then you probably are not doing it right. (Or you were already doing it before).
Second, find an accountability partner that can help you hone the skill. As a business coach, I work with clients to develop this and other skills necessary to be successful in their business. Practicing these types of techniques builds “mental muscle memory”, that then becomes a part of your daily routine. In other words, you are developing a habit.
Contact me if you’d like to find out more about how I can help you. I work with clients both locally and remotely.