two people holding up a tin can phone to show active listening to improve relationships

It’s time to improve your active listening skills! Our culture in the United States tends to value knowledge and achievement. We seem to admire those who have reached a certain level of success, and grant fancy titles to those who excel in higher education. We put some of these people on pedestals.

On the other hand, we also seem to shy away from those we consider know-it-alls. We get turned off by those who seem to have an answer for everything, or may try to one-up the stories they hear. There seems to be a paradox at play.

Think about the relationships that you cherish. What is the common thread between these relationships and the people you want to spend more time with? I will argue there is a simple formula to explain these relationships. We want to spend time with people who show that they care for us. Those who have a legitimate interest in us, and in our wellbeing.

Actively Listen to Show Care for Others

The question becomes, what characteristics show that level of care? Or, how can I show others that I actually care about them? I believe the simplest method is to actively listen. What does it mean to actively listen? First and foremost is to listen with the intent of understanding their story.

As we wrote in an earlier post “Listen to Understand,” the tendency in our society is to listen to respond. Maybe that is because of what we noted earlier, that our culture values knowledge. We want others to know we are smart, and receive the benefits of our knowledge. Then we listen to respond, jump in, and step all over the story. We actually create the opposite situation than what we intended. We now have turned their story into ours, and in the process, we have turned off the other person.

How to go About Actively Listening

To become a better listener, we have to want to change, and work to make it happen. It is a much more difficult process than we think it is. It will take effort, energy, and practice to be able to begin active listening. The process of active listening begins with intent. If your intention is to become a better listener, you need to listen with all of your body and not just your ears.

Body language plays a large part in actively listening. Turn towards the other person. Face them in a relaxed and open position, and look them in the eyes. Smile, frown, or let your face show emotion when appropriate based on their story. Nod your head in agreement, raise your eyebrows in wonderment, and simply allow your body to react to the story. This cannot be forced, it must be true emotion. The key is to allow your body to show that emotion.

Ask Questions

As the person is telling their story, look for clues in the story that can lead to deeper meaning. Ask questions based on those clues to allow the speaker permission to go deeper. It shows them that you are not only listening, but you have an interest in their subject. This interest denotes care. Care is what develops relationships. Again, I must emphasize that these questions must not be forced. The speaker will be able to register if your questions are inauthentic.

How to Ask Better Questions

There is an old saying to get better answers, you have to ask better questions. This is easier said than done! What constitutes a better question? A better question is one that is open-ended, and cannot be answered with a yes or a no answer. Yes or no questions are called closed questions, and they typically end a conversation. If you are looking to dive deeper in a conversation, ask a question that allows the speaker to tell a story. There is a great acronym, one that is easy to remember, and allows you to ask better questions. The acronym is TED, and it stands for Tell, Describe, or Explain.

This technique gently allows the speaker to go deeper into their story by asking them to tell, describe, or explain. For example:

“That was so interesting, tell me more about…”

“Describe how it felt to be in the middle of…”

Explain what it means to …”

The Benefit

These questions all require a deeper story. The deeper story allows you to better understand the speaker. This level of interest and active listening shows the speaker that you care about them and their story. Care is what builds relationships. Active listening is what drives us towards better relationships, and allows us to connect with others. Your business relationships in the workplace, and with customers, will directly benefit improving your active listening skills.

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