I have a simple definition of listening. It’s made up of three parts. To listen is to put someone else’s speaking, thinking, and feeling needs first. This naturally leads to the three most important things in listening:
1. Let the other person speak before you speak.
Even better, help the other person tell their story, without taking over, or stealing the punch line. If it’s an issue that concerns you, try not to get defensive or to push for your own arguments, because you’re likely to end up interrupting or arguing.
We all want to be heard. We like to talk about unusual things: “Guess what I saw today!” We like to share more serious things: “I just got some bad news about my favorite high school teacher.” Let people finish their story (or make their case) and don’t interrupt or tell yours.
2. Allow the other person to think before you tell them what you think.
Help the other person think more clearly. Ask them good questions about their motivations, reasons, and options and let them talk about it. Don’t put people on the spot or make them uncomfortable.
One time I was at a conference and I had to decide whether I should sign up for a marketing course. I had just listened to a presentation and was impressed with what I had heard. I called my wife and I went through the pros and cons of it. She asked me a few good questions without telling me what to do. I thought about it, got over my initial excitement, and ended up not making the purchase. Yes, I talked myself out of an emotional purchase.
3. Let the other person feel before you impose your emotional needs on the conversation.
If someone shares something exciting with you, help them enjoy their excitement. Don’t rain on their parade. If someone shares something sad with you, let them know it’s okay to feel sad. Don’t rush them to get over it. If you’re uncomfortable, bored, or not interested in the subject, the speaker can usually pick that up. And it will discourage them from continuing.
Here’s a common emotional scenario. Usually right after I’ve had a fight with someone, I want to vent. That means I want to talk about all the reasons why I’m right and why the other person is wrong. Don’t tell me to calm down. If you listen and allow me to let off some steam, I’ll calm down on my own. Then and only then might I be willing and able to see the other person’s point of view.
Imagine doing these three things just a bit more often in your conversations (yes, even electronic ones). One last thing. Don’t just take turns to talk. Take turns to listen.