Did you ever walk out of an interaction with someone with the feeling that you had just had an amazing conversation? Did you ever stop to wonder what made it so good—was it the topic or was it the delivery of the message you or the other person was conveying? Or was it something else you couldn’t quite point to but you just sensed all sorts of good vibes? All of these factors play a role in constituting a great conversation.
The idea is constantly reinforced by our role models, professors and others that in order to truly be engaging in a conversation we ought to be interesting, remember the other person’s name, and show some interest in what they’re communicating to us. Seldom does the listening portion of the conversation get near as much coverage. So that’s why I am going to cover it in as much detail, but also as succinctly as I can.
You can conclude a conversation with someone having practically said no more than 2 or 3 words and have them go their separate way feeling like you’re the best person to talk to ever. You know why—because you were doing some great listening. Superior listening skills involves several components as follows:
1. The realization that it is not all about you. The first major step to becoming a superb listener is to realize that your self-worth should not be rooted in the validation of your ideas by anyone outside of yourself. There are many components to this realization which I write about in another post (see “The Truth About All Relationships” for reference). Needless to say, once you come into this realization you are able to be completely present in your listening to the other person’s stories and communications. You are able to do this because in that moment you have stopped obsessing over yourself and how to obtain the other person’s approval. Essentially, you realize it’s not all about you and nor should it be.
2. Immerse yourself in the other person’s story. Most of the time, even as we are listening to another person’s story, our brain is on fire relating what that person is saying to personal past experiences and formulating potential responses to them. We can get so wrapped up in analyzing what is said and in responding to it that we don’t fully try to understand the actual message. This is such an ingrained habit that most of us don’t even consciously take note that it is happening.
However, if we are a tad bit more observant, we can observe this behavior in others such as when a colleague, friend or family member interrupts our story to relate it to something in their life or to an idea they have. We notice it in others because it is frustrating to be interrupted midway through something even if that other person’s intentions were pure.
The best listeners have the ability to bypass the natural inclination to interrupt or think of a response and instead completely immerse themselves in the other person’s story. It’s like going to the movies—if you’re enjoying the film, it will captivate your attention intellectually and emotionally in such a way that the only thought you have will be “okay, what’s about to happen next?”
Truly listening to another involves this level of rapture in what they’re saying. Attempt to imagine the pictures their words paint and feel the emotions they evoke. If you interrupt them, interrupt them only to ask how they came to a certain conclusion or what their thoughts and emotions are or were when something happened, or interrupt just to communicate that you understand what they mean.
And when you listen, don’t just listen to the words. Instead, listen to their body language and the tone in which they are relaying the message. Immerse yourself in their excitement, anger, joy and whatever else they are expressing through their movements and words.
If you listen this way, the other person will instinctively vibe from you that you really get them and understand what they’re saying on the same level that they do themselves. They will feel connected to you on a gut-level because as you are listening in this way, it’s as if you are collectively experiencing or re-experiencing the event, the story, or the message together. And when you go through such a powerful collective experience with another, you will both feel more connected and trusting of each other.
3. Yield the floor. Part of conversing with another is allowing the other person the space to connect with you. If you understand the last 2 principles, you will also realize that not everyone has mastered the ability to listen. Now, knowing as we now do that it’s not all about us when others interrupt our story we won’t be upset. And we won’t be upset because our validation comes from within, not others. Instead, we will be able to welcome the interruption as a way to understand and immerse ourselves in something more interesting for that person. And yes, I say more interesting for that person not because we feel our story is not as interesting but because for the most part people like hearing their own voice or stories and seeing others appreciate them more.
So we must be cognizant of this fact in our interactions and aim to be flexible enough to yield the floor to interruptions and immerse ourselves in what follows those interruptions. You’ve got to learn to like the sounds and stories of others as much as you like your own sound and stories and not to be too attached to what you were going to say.
Some people may confuse listening and allowing interruptions with weakness or being a pushover. Let’s be perfectly clear—I am not advocating for anyone to allow verbal abuse. As strong, balanced individuals we should recognize that most of our interactions with others are a choice we make to engage with the other person(s). Therefore, we can choose to not engage in it if it starts to become abusive. And if we cannot help but engage in the interaction, then we can choose how to react to it (more on that in my post on “10 Game Changing Ideas For Living Life On Your Own Terms”).
The preceding 3 components are not always easy to practice, but the more you actively utilize them the easier it will become to consistently apply them. There are a few more elements to becoming an active listener that I will touch upon in the future, but these core principles form a solid foundation for more engaged interactions with the people in your life. Give these 3 principles a go for a couple of hours or days or just for your next 5 conversations and see how it works out for you. I’m willing to bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.