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Active Listening, A Real Life Jedi Mind Trick

Jordan Hirsch | Director of Training and Facilitation

May 21, 2014

"We have to move the deadline up a week."

"We have to move the deadline up a week."

"We have to move the deadline up a week."

On the surface, those three statements look identical. Imagine that you heard each one spoken aloud by a client. If you're just listening, they might sound about the same. If you listen a little harder, you might hear some differences in tone or in the rate of speech. Harder still and you might notice some body language differences and even mentally add context to what you're hearing. Put this all together, and you're no longer just listening - you're actively listening. And active listening lets you hear a world of meaningful difference between three things that otherwise might have sounded more or less exactly alike. For example, you might realize that one of the clients in this scenario realizes that changing the deadline is a huge deal, while another thinks this won't be a problem at all. And the third is really sorry about it and wishes it didn't have to be this way. When you are using active listening, these are three very different statements - and they warrant three very different responses.

What Is Active Listening?

I'm glad you asked. The name is somewhat self-explanatory, but the concept is not: namely, the art of turning listening into an active rather than a passive activity. Active listening means listening with all your senses, not just your ears. It means using all your powers of concentration and observation to hear beyond just the words being said. It means listening to what's not being said in addition to what is. It means paying attention to body language, tone of voice, context, and anything else you can glean from a conversation. Active listening is also a powerful tool for gaining information.

Why Should I Care?

Today, more than ever, information is currency. Particularly when you are working in the world of technology projects, having the right information at the right time is crucial to success. But people don't always give you the right information - and they definitely don't give you all the information you might need. When you are in the all-important project phase of gathering requirements, active listening can mean the difference between giving a client what they asked for - vs. giving them what they need. Active listening is also about building trust. In today's world where attention is a scarce resource, actively listening to someone - really doing it, not just nodding and planning what you're going to say next - is a powerful way to gain someone's trust, deepen your relationship, and actually learn something.

How Do I Do It?

Active listening is not easy, but you can learn how to do it, and with practice it will become second nature. If you want to get really good at it, I'd suggest enrolling in an improv class (listening is one of the most important skills in improv comedy). But for now, here is a non-exhaustive list of some basic practices to get you started:

  • Make eye contact. Locking eyes with a speaker not only shows them that you are listening, it actually tells your brain to focus on the person talking. Your attention will go where your eyes go, so start there and let your ears follow.
  • Single-task. That's right, doing one thing at a time actually helps you focus on the thing you're doing. Crazy, isn't it? When you're talking to someone, resist the urge to check your phone, answer an email, update Facebook, or do any of the other myriad things you could be doing at the same time. Because you're not really doing something at the same time you're listening - you're doing that thing instead of listening.
  • Take notes. If you can't have your laptop open without checking Twitter, then go the old-fashioned route and use a pen and paper. No matter what method you use, writing down what you hear isn't just a way to remember it, it's also a trigger to your brain to make you think about what you just heard. Writing down information forces you to process it a second time (the first time was when you heard it), which often leads to follow-up or clarifying questions, which are a great hallmark of active listening.
  • Repeat back. "I'm hearing you say ..." is a great thing to say to not only tell someone that you've been listening, but also to make sure that you're hearing them correctly. You don't have to stop at just what you heard, either. If someone is saying "I don't have the files yet from Dave" and you're paying enough attention that you realize that's the third time this person has been waiting on something from Dave you might say "I'm hearing you say that Dave isn't getting you a lot of resources in a timely manner. Is he having trouble using the new document management system?" Often a person will not realize that they are elucidating underlying themes and problems until you point it out to them. Repeating back helps make sure you're hearing someone correctly and it helps you surface information which might otherwise have remained buried.
  • Stop planning. If you're planning what you're going to say next, you're not listening. If a brilliant point occurs to you and you don't want to lose it, jot it down in your notes - but then let it go and get your focus back where it belongs.
  • Embrace silence. Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do in a conversation is simply sit quietly. This is a powerful negotiating tactic, but you can use it in less confrontational areas as well. A few moments of silence after someone speaks gives you both a chance to digest what was said, and helps send the message that you're not simply waiting for your turn to talk.

Active listening goes far beyond this list. It's a skill that takes time to master, but it's time worth spending. The more you can master this skill, the more information you can glean from everyday conversations, in and out of a conference room. Active listening isn't just useful in the world of business, it can help you build and deepen personal relationships as well. It's basically a Jedi mind trick that you can do in real life.

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