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Published on August 27, 2018

13 Powerful Listening Skills to Improve Your Life at Work and at Home

13 Powerful Listening Skills to Improve Your Life at Work and at Home

Listening is probably one of the most underrated leadership and business skills. We all know listening is a critical component of our work, but not everyone invests the time necessary to become a better listener.

Even when we work to become better listeners, we live in an age of perpetual distractions. From ever-growing to-do lists to a burning desire to remain relevant to social media and advances in technology, there are myriad factors that make deep listening a challenge.

When I was coming of age, the only advice doled out about listening was to make good eye contact with the speaker and lean in. The thinking was that leaning in while a person was speaking would enhance understanding and give the impression that you were practicing deep listening.

However, hearing what an individual is communicating involves so much more than what we do with our bodies. Sure, our body language is critical, but it represents one piece, not the whole. Active listening requires several steps:

1. Listen with the intention to understand.

This is a key component of active listening. When you listen with the intention to understand, you listen with an open-mind, versus a prejudged conclusion.

When you communicate with the intention to understand, you ask appropriately timed questions (as opposed to interrupting to share a different story) to ensure that the messages you’re receiving is the one the speaker intends.

Listening with the intention to understand means going into a conversation with a genuine interest in grasping what the speaker is communicating and being mindful to take in all cues from the conversation, such as verbal, nonverbal and what is spoken openly versus left unsaid.

2. Use interruptions sparingly.

When practicing active listening, it’s important to use interruptions sparingly. Allow the speaker to communicate an entire thought before interrupting with questions or your interpretation of what he or she said.

So many times, others’ comments will spark thoughts and we’ll interrupt them. However, if we aren’t careful, interruptions can communicate, “Hey, I know more than you,” or worse, “You’re taking too long to get to the point and I don’t have time to listen to what you have to say.”

If people feel they aren’t or haven’t been heard, they may struggle to establish a trusting relationship with you.

3. Process what you’ve heard.

Processing what you are hearing is all about asking yourself whether your own perspective is unduly shaping what the other person is saying. It is about being honest enough to know whether you are adding context to what someone else is communicating.

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For instance, several weeks ago, I had an important dinner meeting with two business associates. I spent a great deal of time styling my hair and ensuring that I was polished and presentable. When I walked into the dinner, my associate said, “oh, your hair has a 1960s look.”

This was not the style I was going for.

I immediately heard, “Your hair is ugly.” For a few minutes during the dinner, I thought about what the person was saying and compared that to what I heard, which was shaped by my own insecurities about the hairstyle in question. In the end, I chalked up the difference in communication to me being overly sensitive.

Had I not processed the conversation, I very well may have remained stuck in my head or treated my colleague differently based on what I initially heard as an insult.

4. Repeat back.

Just because two people are in a conversation does not mean both parties hear the same thing. We each bring our own weltanschauung, which is German for “world view,” to conversations, and this shapes what and how we hear.

If you are a manager, you have likely been in a situation where you assign a project to an employee and anticipate its completion. Once finished, you are mystified to learn that your employee did an excellent job on something you never requested or needed.

Repeat backs are an excellent tool to enhance understanding, communicate your interest in the person speaking and ensure that you heard what the other person intended.

Repeat backs work best in one-on-one or small group discussions. If you’re in a lecture or a large event, you may not have the opportunity to repeat back what you have heard. However, if you’re in a work setting or meeting with a family member or friend, practice repeating back what you have heard and asking the speaker if you correctly captured what he or she said.

The way it works is simple: You listen to a conversation and try to capture as much of it as possible.

When the person you are speaking with finishes his or her remarks, ask if it’s OK for you to repeat back what you heard the individual say. Then give highlights of the conversation that convey your understanding. This is great for you and affirming for the speaker.

5. Limit distractions.

From cellphones and social media to simultaneous conversations to the television or music apps, at any given time myriad items are competing for our attention.

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If you are in a conversation, try to limit distractions. Practice focusing on one thing when someone is speaking with you, and that’s the person talking. While most people believe they are capable of multitasking, research indicate that no one does it well.

David Sanbonmatsu, a University of Utah psychology professor and lead author of a research study on distraction says:

“People don’t multitask because they’re good at it. They do it because they are more distracted.”

In other words, they have so much going on that they feel forced to do more than one thing at a time. The result is poor listening skills.

The next time you are in a conversation, limit the distractions around you. Place the phone out of reach, silence or tune out the television, and for the next several minutes, focus exclusively on the person you are in communication with.

Even if you believe you can do more than one thing well, think about whether the person speaking to you believes he or she has your full attention. If the individual does not believe you are listening fully, you may throw off the person’s train of thought while he or she expends energy thinking about how to capture your complete attention.

For instance, in my profession, I am constantly in the position of presenting to multiple people at a time. When I am speaking to an individual or a group, I find that I have a hard time staying focused on my remarks if the individuals I am speaking with are staring at their computer or cellphone.

6. Make good eye contact.

I have heard plenty of people say they are listening even though their eyes are on other items rather than the speaker. Active listening is about listening with all our body and senses.

To improve or enhance your listening skills, look at the person who is speaking. Make good eye contact with the individual throughout his or her remarks. This allows you to take in the words the person is saying as well as the individual’s facial expressions and gestures.

I promise you, it is impossible to not glean something from the conversation when you stay tuned in to the speaker.

7. Lean in.

Before Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, I was taught that leaning in was an excellent way to signal to a speaker that I was listening to what he or she was saying.

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To communicate to teachers, colleagues and advisers that I was listening to what they were saying, I learned to use both my ears and my body.

I also learned early that if I was tired or otherwise limited in being fully present, leaning in would give me the bolt of energy necessary to be a better listener.

I relish this advice still to this day. When I am in a conversation and I am particularly interested in what someone is saying, I will lean in as if the two of us are seated next to or across from one another.

If I am standing next to the speaker, I will stand close enough to the person to communicate that I am interested in the conversation and in the individual.

8. Ask clarifying questions.

To ensure you are hearing what the other person is saying, check in with the person when he or she is finished speaking with phrases and questions such as “What I’m hearing you say is …” or “Based on what you just said, is it safe to assume that ….”

You may also ask the person, “Where can I go to learn more about that?” Also, if after hearing a person out completely, you still don’t understand what the individual was saying, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t understand. Can you elaborate?”

9. Get curious.

Some of the best discoveries have been made because an innovator became curious. While curiosity is a blessing in innovation, it’s also helpful in listening.

When you become curious, you are eager for more information. You pay attention to the subtleties and the blatant messages. Even when the conversation ends, the curious mind continues to process what you have heard.

10. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

It is difficult but necessary to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is required if you want to be an active listener.

To be an active listener is to temporarily imagine you are walking the other person’s path and feeling what that individual feels. Active listening is about developing empathy for the person speaking.

When you imagine confronting life through the speaker’s lens, it will be easier to listen with interest.

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11. Suspend judgment.

To practice active listening, you must suspend judgment.

When you sit in a place of judgment, you draw predetermined conclusions. During a conversation, you are then listening to find information that supports the conclusion you have already reached.

When this happens, it is difficult to really hear what another person is saying. It is almost as if you are playing bingo and you are listening only for the words on your bingo sheet.

Anything else is a distraction because you are on a mission. Suspending judgment doesn’t mean you listen without discernment. It means you listen for the possibility of being wrong. It means you listen with an open mind.

It is impossible to practice deep listening without a willingness to suspend judgment.

12. Take notes.

One way to keep from interrupting a person when they are speaking is taking notes.

Notes allow you to retain your own thoughts, while noting areas for follow-up with the speaker. They also communicate to the person you are speaking with that you are listening to what they are saying.

13. Give up the need to be right.

When you are committed to winning an argument, you enter the conversation fully invested in winning. You actually aren’t capable of hearing what the other person says because you are persuaded that you are right.

However, active listening requires giving up the need to be right. You will be surprised how much you are able to actually hear the other party when you are not vested in having your way.

While I know the distractions facing you won’t evaporate overnight, you are stronger than every distraction you face.

With practice and tools, you can become a better listener. Your family, friends and colleagues will thank you for it. And who knows, maybe they will be inspired by you and work to become better listeners themselves.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Jennifer R. Farmer

An author and public relations expert specializes in helping socially-conscious entrepreneurs, celebrities and activists

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Last Updated on January 15, 2019

How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

Many of us feel awkward talking to strangers. I’m a very outgoing person, even though I sometimes feel uncomfortable walking up to someone and asking a question or starting a conversation. I consider myself pretty high up on the extrovert meter. So what is it that makes us pause and become worried or anxious about talking to people we don’t know?

In this article, we will discuss why we feel this way as well as some tips on how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward.

Step right up, don’t be shy!

Why We Feel Awkward Talking to Strangers

The next time you feel uncomfortable talking to a stranger, tell yourself that’s completely normal. There are numerous reasons why it’s actually natural to feel awkward talking to strangers:

Our Stress Levels Rise Around Strangers

Numerous studies have show that our levels of cortisol go up when we are around strangers.[1] Cortisol is the hormone inside of us which produces stress responses.[2]
So there you go, right off the bat you can see part of your standard response to strangers is due to a chemical reaction!

A very interesting by product of increased cortisol is that it makes us less empathetic. More than likely this can be traced to our evolution. The increase in the cortisol and the corresponding decrease in empathy makes us want to stay away from strangers. We are biologically wired to feel concern around strangers.

Evolution Taught Us to Be Wary

Evolution has also taught us to be wary of strangers in general. Humans as a whole have spent a large chunk of their history banded together in small protective groups. We did this in order to help protect each other and maximize resources.

When you think about it in this context, outsiders to our small groups or strangers are considered potential threats. Fear of strangers is common across almost all human cultures.

Culturally Conditioned

We can also thank our society for helping us feel uncomfortable and sometimes afraid of strangers. The term “stranger danger” is something most of us can relate to either growing up or raising kids. Or both.

I remember hearing this from my parents, mostly about not getting in someone’s car I didn’t know. And as the father of 2 teenage girls, you can be sure I’ve talked to them about this very concept more times that they want to hear.

The thought that strangers can be dangerous is built into us as it is. Toss in the amplification of the media on strangers doing things such as kidnapping kids and it takes it to an even higher level.

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Now that we’ve reviewed some of the reasons why we are nervous, let’s look at why you should talk to strangers more.

Benefits of Getting over the Awkwardness

Let’s take a quick look at some of the advantages of how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward. These are some high level benefits of talking to strangers.

1. Broadens Your Network

After you talk to someone, you didn’t know previously they become someone you know at least a little bit. This alone helps broaden your network of people you know. This is helpful in many ways whether it is work related or socially related.

2. Improves Your Communication Skills

I am a huge proponent of the value of solid communication skills and have written about it often. The more you talk to people, especially people you don’t know, the better your communication skills become.

Interacting with a wider variety of people will bring the added benefit of improving your communication skills.

3. Continually Learning

So many of us don’t actively seek to learn new things. This is one of the primary keys to staying engaged in life and our own personal self fulfillment.

Almost every time I speak to someone I didn’t know previously, I’ve learned something new. When we speak to strangers, it pushes us out of our comfort zones and we tend to learn new things.

4. Increases Self Confidence

Every time we learn to do something we were previously anxious about, we feel better about ourselves.

Forcing ourselves to talk to strangers will lead to increased self confidence. As we get more and more comfortable doing something that previously made us feel awkward, our self confidence will go up and up.

So, how to talk to strangers to reap these benefits?

How to Talk to Strangers

Here are some tips to on how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward.

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1. Say Hello

Putting “say hello” first may seem a bit obvious but let’s take a deeper look. Much of the social awkwardness when speaking to strangers is simply breaking the ice. The first words that will engage someone.

Most people will respond when someone says hello or hi to them. And those that don’t, you probably don’t want to talk to anyway.

Practice being the person that opens the door to a conversation. Say hello.

2. Ask About Them

Something that I have noticed over the years is that people love to talk about themselves. Even fairly private people tend to open up when asked about events in their lives.

You can ask leading questions that get people to talk about themselves and recent events. Things like recent movies watched or the summer vacation are great to get someone talking.

As a father, I also know that people love to talk about their kids. Asking about kids is a fairly easy topic to bring up and in general, most people will expound upon all the great things their kids do or are involved with.

3. Just Do It

One of the biggest reasons we don’t do things we want to or know we should is because we overthink it. Quit thinking about it so much and just do it.

When you give yourself the time to analyze every little angle about a situation, you also give plenty of time to talk yourself out of it. You’ll wind up thinking what if this happens or what if that happens.

Try to force yourself to jump right in without thinking about it too much. Whenever I have done this, I always feel great about it afterwards, no matter how it turned out.

4. Don’t Take It Personal

One of the greatest lessons in life I ever learned was don’t take anything personally. We all go through life with our own sets of experiences and see things through our own lens. The way people react to different situations has almost nothing to do with us. It has to do with previous experiences and the way people feel about things other than us.

When someone’s reaction isn’t what you’d hoped or expected, chances are it has nothing to do with you. Remember that and keep it in context.

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5. Get a Chuckle If Possible

I used the word chuckle purposely because it makes me laugh. In my opinion, it’s one of those funny words. We all like to laugh because it makes us feel good. And when someone makes us laugh, we typically remember those people in a positive light.

One of the best ways to make a conversation easy and free flowing is to get some laughter going. It doesn’t mean you have to be the master joke teller or anything. See if you can work in a way to make the person you are talking to get a smile or some laughter in. In fact, laughing at yourself maybe a nice try.

6. Detach

A great feeling is when you don’t mind which way something turns out, that you will be fine no matter what happens. Kind of like when I watch my two favorite football teams play against each other. I don’t really care who wins, I just want a fun game.

Treat talking to strangers the same way. You don’t really care how the conversation goes because you are detaching from the outcome. Make it a fun time with yourself and if the conversation goes well, awesome! If not then no big deal, move on.

7. Share Your Stories

Well, all like to feel connected to other people. And many times we wind up hanging out with people that we have things in common with. No surprise here.

To help with how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward, tell stories that have commonalities with the person you are talking to. Kids are an easy one. I have a daughter who was a competitive cheerleader and now plays club volleyball. I have instant connection and stories with strangers I speak with who have kids that play sports. It’s easy to relate to.

So when you are speaking to a stranger and you have a story or mutual connection point, bring it up.

8. Give a Compliment

Almost everyone likes hearing a compliment, whether they admit to it or not. As a general rule, we don’t give out enough compliments. It’s amazing how one small remark someone tosses your way about how good you look can literally make your entire day.

When you are speaking with someone you don’t know, see if you can work a compliment in. Nothing creepy here. Not a good idea to tell someone you just met that they are the prettiest or handsomest person you ever met. However, if you can share how you like their tattoo or shoes or something like that, it will help put the conversation into an easy going, smiling place.

9. Relax Your Body Language

If you go into a situation all worried and nervous, it shows on your body. Your shoulders are tensed up, there’s a look of consternation on your face, things like that.

When you engage a stranger in conversation, make it a point to relax your body language. Take a deep breath before you engage the person, let your body relax, and put a smile on your face. This will help relax you and it has the added benefit of putting the other person more at ease.

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If they see that you are relaxed, it helps them relax. Plus having open, engaging body language is very conducive to inviting someone to open up into a conversation with you.

10. Practice, Practice, Practice

Like everything else in life, talking to strangers gets easier with practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Make it a point to talk to several strangers each week and it will definitely help you relax as you do it more and more.

After a while, it will become something you don’t even think about, you just do it. And that takes all of the awkwardness out of being in these type situations.

The Bottom Line

As we have seen, it is perfectly natural to feel awkward talking to strangers. We are biologically built that way and we have our own society constantly warning us how dangerous it is. It’s no wonder we feel awkward talking to strangers!

There are numerous benefits to learning to be more comfortable talking to strangers. See if you can employ some of the techniques mentioned to learn how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward.

Once you start practicing speaking with strangers more often and utilizing some of the tips, you will become more comfortable doing so. This in turn will lead to a learned new skill and increased self confidence.

Remember, everyone you know was a stranger at one time. Now get out there and make some new friends.

More Resources About Strengthening Communication Skills

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

Reference

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