the art of listening

How do you master the art of listening? If you’re in the financial services industry, you know the clichés like the back of your hand: make eye contact, smile and nod, remember what someone says and repeat it back to them, and use their name as frequently as you can. While tactics like these provide evidence of listening, they do not help you hear. As interpersonal communication expert Celeste Headlee says, “You don’t need to prove that you’re listening if you’re actually listening.” To put it simply, when you listen to someone with the sole intention of getting them to trust you enough to buy whatever you’re selling, you fail to actually hear them. Rather than really listening, you’re just waiting to talk. Not only is this kind of listening shallow and self-centered, it’s boring– and eventually you’ll start to bore yourself, too.

In my business, there are so many fascinating characters with truly extraordinary experiences to share. If you only take the time to listen, you’ll learn so much. Last night, I had dinner with a client and his wife in a small town three hours outside of Minneapolis. It was below zero and snowing, so it was easy to linger in the warm country restaurant listening to the stories of their lives: his last-minute triumph over the flu to attend the Super Bowl; that time they met Joe Montana; how he met his wife in high school and what a great team they still make. It was only afterward on the frost-bitten drive back to Minneapolis that I realized we hadn’t discussed business at all. But I feel like I gained something so much better: I got to know him as a person, rather than a client. I know this will make all the difference in our future relationship, and it’s a lot more fun in the process.

To truly listen with the intent to hear and understand, you have to focus all of your attention on the speaker. This is harder than it sounds. No matter your profession, authentic listening takes practice and diligence. These methods, borrowed from several of my favorite speakers and writers on the subject, have helped me practice the art of listening and have made me a better boss, colleague, and father as a result.

Forget about your agenda.

I’m not saying that you should forget the business end of a business meeting, as I did in that small town outside of Minneapolis. Of course, you’re there for a reason, and you need to get things done. But, when someone else is speaking, you have to put your agenda on the backburner in order to really hear them. This way, you don’t miss something important while you’re busy coming up with something clever.

Be present.

When 70% of your brain is focused on the conversation and 30% of your brain is focused on your grocery list, it’s a lot more obvious to your partners in conversation than you think. Be 100% focused on the other person, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly they will warm to your attention.

Ask open-ended questions.

When people tell us a story, we often feel compelled to tell them a similar story of our own. When taken too far too frequently, this comes across as one-upmanship. As they say in meditation, notice these stories, and then let them go. Refocus on the person in front of you. In order to actively listen, it is helpful to ask questions that invite the speaker to elaborate. Rather than yes/no questions or questions that “lead the witness,” open-ended questions give the speaker more room to answer authentically.

Always assume that you have something to learn.

Everyone is an expert in something. Ask good questions until you find out what it is. Assume the role of the student in every conversation, and you’ll always learn something new.

“Yes, and”; or, The Zen of Improv.

In group improv, you’ll never see one comic reject another comic’s idea on stage. According the “yes, and” rule, they always accept their partner’s idea, they inhabit it completely, and then they expand on it. This is what keeps the group cohesive and co-creative. When we apply this rule to life in general by listening generously and responding in kind, we create more collaborative, supportive, and creative partnerships with everyone in our lives.