Why Listening Is More Courageous than Speaking: 5 Tips for Active Listening

Talking is easy. Listening – as opposed to simply not talking – is hard.

We all know that sometimes it takes courage to speak, but what about the courage it takes to listen? Listening is not about just being quiet, but about actually actively listening. And active listening involves a few rules that may challenge the innate tendency many of us have to just keep on talking. Or, if we’re not doing the talking, at least getting ready to talk!

Active listening is about focusing on truly listening, to not just hear but to understand what the speaker is saying. It requires a suspension of judgment until you have fully understood, an ability to empathize so that the speaker feels enabled to express themselves fully, and a healthy dose of resisting the temptation to give in to all your old habits around talking and listening.

Here are five tips to help you practice the art of active listening:

Close the door. Literally or metaphorically. The point is, remove distractions in your environment so that you can give your full attention to the speaker. Consider switching off your phone. For you as the listener, it will help you keep your concentration and actively listen. For the speaker, it will help them see that you plan to give them your full attention. Which leads us to point 2.

Let the other person speak. Don’t interrupt. You can, however, encourage the speaker with your positive body language, good eye contact with nodding, and occasional reinforcements. If you do interrupt, take responsibility for bringing the conversation back on track.

Don’t prepare your response while the other person is talking. Poor listeners frequently prioritise their own needs and interests. “How does this affect me? How can I get my way here?” Instead, try to be completely open-minded and genuinely interested in what the other person is saying. This is difficult because we all have an innate bias toward our own interests. One simple trick is, just when you’re about to say something, pause and instead hold the silence for a couple of extra beats. Nine times out of ten, the person will continue to explain their situation or issue.

Listen to understand first, and then listen again to what’s “in-between” the lines. You’re not just gathering information, you’re trying to understand the why of what’s being said. Then base your response on this understanding. After you have really actively listened, you might find your response is different to what you might have prepared. Don’t be ready with your judgment before you have actively listened.

Check for understanding. Clarify and confirm (“So what I think you are saying is …”, “So let me be sure I understood …”). When they are finished speaking, recap.

So where’s the courageous bit? Well, it takes courage to be willing to put aside your preconceptions or biases and be open to going where the speaker is going without stepping in to challenge or redirect the conversation to where you want to go. It calls on you to show empathy to the speaker, to put yourself in their place and walk in their shoes. And importantly, it requires you to be open to the possibility that listening might change you, your view and your response.

Well, that’s all great, but even though you might be quite clear by now on how active listening works, you may be asking the “so what’s in it for me” question.  Paradoxically, the less focused on our own interests we are, the better we listen, the better we usually feel and then the real benefits ensue: better quality communications and relationships.

Try active listening. It’s a no-brainer. Active listening gets you more and better-quality information, builds trust amongst those you work with and ultimately enables you to better influence and persuade others. And, because it is such an underdeveloped skill, your ability to listen actively will give you an advantage. Now who wouldn’t want that?

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