Listening makes real communication possible.
In a workplace that values listening, people feel safer to suggest creative ideas and bring up problems that need to be addressed. Information is less likely to be distorted as it travels through the organization. People are more likely to feel supported and respected, improving teamwork and morale.
If listening is so important, why is it so difficult? Studies show most people struggle to remember half of what they just heard. Our complex brains are partly to blame. On average people talk at the rate of 125 words per minute while our brains are capable of taking in much more information than that. Thus the brain’s extra capacity is easily tempted by competing thoughts and distractions.
To listen well, we need approaches that help the brain work with us, rather than against us. Here are four tips for better listening with The FISH! Philosophy:
1. Choose Your Attitude: Listen to Understand
Our brains are wired to look back and think ahead. The prefrontal cortex uses past experiences to interpret incoming information and predict what will happen next. That’s helpful when you’re in the wild, alert and ready to quickly decide to flee or fight.
But it’s less helpful when we try to listen. Because we filter through what is familiar, we have trouble staying “open” when we hear what doesn’t immediately confirm our experiences and beliefs. Our brains see it as a threat.
To fully understand the other person, we must push back against our evolutionary preferences. See conversation as cooperation, not competition. Choose Your Attitude and set aside your judgments, biases and assumptions. Use your listening time to be curious, not to formulate a critique or rebuttal.
It’s important to learn from our experiences, but those experiences are limited. By truly listening to others, we draw from their experiences as well, developing a deeper understanding of our world.
2. Be There: Use Your Eyes
You listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Eye contact, when it is warm and friendly, activates regions of the brain that put people at ease and feel rewarded. It provides important clues about what the person is saying beyond their words.
Eye contact can be tricky, depending on the culture or personality of the person who is speaking. Too much and you may appear intimidating. Too little and you seem uninterested (or are hiding something).
While there is no rule about the right amount of eye contact, it’s an important signal that you care. When someone speaks to you, turn away from what you are doing to face them. Turn off your computer or phone if necessary.
Researchers believe the more time people spend staring at stationary objects such as computers and phones, their cerebellums—which control the ability to follow moving objects—don’t get enough exercise. This decreases the ability to make eye contact with people and to get full meaning from what they are telling you.
3. Make Their Day: Practice Empathy
The brain is wired to care most about the feelings of its owner. When we interact with other people, we interpret their world through our emotions. Studies show it’s more difficult to empathize with another person’s suffering if we are physically and emotionally comfortable.
The brain has a correcting mechanism—the right supramarginal gyrus—that helps us distinguish between our feelings and those of others, but it must be exercised to override the brain’s self-centeredness.
Psychologists recommend mentally putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Imagine being compassionate, not just with friends and family, but with people you don’t like. Think about people who have it much worse than you. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. Volunteer some time to help others in need.
Practicing empathy helps you listen better. Empathetic listeners make the speaker feel safe to be honest and vulnerable. Their facial expressions and body language communicate a caring that encourages real conversations.
4. Play: Build on Ideas
In an analysis of a program to help managers become better coaches, researchers found the best listeners supported the speaker by building on their ideas. They didn’t try to solve the person’s problem but offered feedback that helped them see it in a new way.
The Harvard Business Review describes good listeners as “trampolines” you can bounce ideas off of. Instead of just absorbing your ideas like a sponge, they “amplify, energize and clarify your thinking.” They ask questions to help you identify any assumptions and recognize new approaches.
Before you help people build on their ideas, make sure you are demonstrating the other qualities of good listening—understanding, eye contact and empathy. Once that happens, people will be more open to your thoughts.