Tune Into Others with the 3 Keys to “Real Listening”

Do you ever kick yourself mentally sometimes after finishing an important conversation?

You know the feeling… where you wish you had acted differently, or had used different words, or where you forgot to say something especially important.

Embarrassingly, I found myself in this situation the other night after watching the Rose Bowl football game.

Although I’m not a huge sports fan, I do like a good college football game, especially when one of the teams is my alma mater (Go Badgers!). This one turned out to be a great match-up.

Towards the end of the game, our youngest son, Patrick, arrived home from a long day of duck hunting with some friends. They had had a couple of unique adventures in the marsh, so he came down to the basement and started telling me about the day.

I wanted to give him my full attention, and I tried, but I found my eyes doing the “sneak-a-peek at the TV” thing while he was talking. I knew this was wrong, but I rationalized it as being ok in the moment because I knew he was a big Wisconsin fan. I assumed he would understand and that he would be glancing at the TV too.

Later after the game had ended (Badgers lost!), I couldn’t get out of my head that I had missed an important opportunity to be a better listener and a better dad. I should have focused only on Patrick’s hunting stories.

The situation reminded me of what Mike Nichols refers to in his book, The Lost Art of Listening, as the three keys to “real listening”. Here they are for you, but also for me:

  • Pay Attention – This is where I made the biggest mistake. As soon as Patrick entered the room, I should have pushed the record button on the DVR and turned the TV off. Paying attention to someone, whether at home or at work, is about eliminating the physical and mental barriers between you and the other person. Put the smartphone down, turn away from the computer, switch off the TV or any other distractions. Then face the speaker directly and concentrate on what they’re saying. Do this with your eyes and your ears.
  • Appreciate Their Point of View – Even I though I erred by leaving the TV on, I did ask Patrick some questions. Showing appreciation is about suspending your needs, not interrupting, and about showing interest in the other person by asking questions.
  • Affirm Your Understanding – Beyond questions, we also need to give the speaker a sense that we heard and understood him. This can be done easily by restating in your own words what he said. As Michael Nichols says, “Without some sign of understanding, the speaker begins to wonder if what she’s saying makes sense, if it’s worth talking about.”

Next time you’re on the listening end of an important conversation, try to remember to tune out all distractions and tune into the speaker by using what I call Professor Nichols’ “Three A’s of Real Listening”…Attention, Appreciate and Affirm. Trust me, I’ll be working to do this too!

“Good listeners don’t act needy. They suspend the self and listen.” Michael Nichols (Professor & author)

Question: How do you battle distractions, and the automatic habits of non-attention, when trying to provide others with “real listening”?