The same theme is repeated in most of my posts: success is achieved through consciousness. You cannot change what you aren't aware of; therefore, the skills acquired in awareness are crucial. Listening is one such skill, found in every great leader or major success. Listening is silent, yet it builds a bond between two people, opens up the other person's worldview, offers clues about what direction your relationship should take, and expands your viewpoint beyond your own restricted perspective. With all these advantages, it's surprising that the art of listening is low on most people's agenda.
Let's see what we can do to change this. Listening begins by being quiet while someone else is speaking. When they are quiet, many people aren't listening, however. They doing something else, namely
Tuning out while pretending to listen.
Putting up with someone who can't be challenged without risk.
Waiting to jump in with their own opinion.
Letting their attention drift.
These are the opposite of listening, and each one is easily detected by the other person. Since fake listening creates a bad impression, be quiet with a purpose, which comes down to one thing: paying attention. Paying attention is the key to the skill of listening. When you pay attention you are giving yourself over to learning. Simply focusing on the other person's words is a fairly empty gesture, although it's common courtesy, like not interrupting and keeping your eyes on the speaker (two hints worth remembering).
The productive way to pay attention is to know what you want from listening. In advance of a meeting, interview, or important face-to-face discussion, choose among the following intentions you are going to keep in mind:
You want information.
You want to establish a personal bond.
You want to find out what the other person thinks.
You want a fresh perspective.
You are simply curious.
You want to be entertained.
You need the other person to agree with you.
You want the other person to pay attention to what you have to say.
You want to find out where you stand.
You need to understand a particular situation and how it is developing.
Each of these purposes (which aren't isolated--they can overlap) requires a different kind of listening. That will surprise many people, but someone who has mastered the art of listening will understand, because listening isn't passive. It's an activity bound up with the whole realm of mental activity, in other words, thinking, feeling, gaining impressions, and understanding. Listening is also psychological--it changes the dynamic between two people.
One could write several paragraphs on each purpose in listening, but if you want to master this skill, pause and consider how it feels to take part in each category. We've all experienced them in our lives. We know what it's like to listen in order to find out where we stand with someone (often of the opposite sex) or how to assess a situation that's in flux.
You can tell that your listening has been productive if you walk away afterwards with a sense that you got what you wanted. Usually this won't happen if you only listen; you also have to participate in order to direct the discussion where you need it to go. That's the most active aspect of listening: knowing how, when you do speak, to focus your words in line with what you have been listening for. If you are listening, for example, to gain certain information but you leave the room without it, your listening hasn't succeeded.
The art of listening also requires that you avoid the wrong kind of listening, meaning the kind that is unproductive. Listening fails when you're just pretending, as was pointed out earlier. But it also fails in the following situations:
When the other person is only talking to hear himself talk.
When the other person has no interest in what you have to contribute.
When the other person is deliberately withholding information.
When the other person has no respect for you.
When your only function is to sit in a chair and pretend to be interested.
In these situations, you can rarely turn a bad experience into a good one, so there's every reason to cut your losses and leave the room as soon as possible. Realize that you are exposing yourself to needless stress by making yourself the victim of someone else's selfish or thoughtless agenda. Naturally, you can find yourself trapped in meetings, classes, and discussions that have almost no chance of being productive, which is why people automatically tune out. That may be the appropriate response, yet the drawback is that once the habit of tuning out sets in, many people fail to see how valuable real, productive listening can be. Just keep in mind that an essential part of success and a key trait in great leaders is a highly developed ability to listen, take heed, and act.