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

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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.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

More by this author

Jennifer R. Farmer

An author and trainer specializes in helping socially-conscious entrepreneurs, celebrities and activists

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Last Updated on July 20, 2021

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

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How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

Warming up

If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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  1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
  2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
  3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

Stay hydrated

Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

Meditate

Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

2. Focus on your goal

One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

3. Convert negativity to positivity

There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

4. Understand your content

Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

5. Practice makes perfect

Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

6. Be authentic

There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

7. Post speech evaluation

Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

Improve your next speech

As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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  • How did I do?
  • Are there any areas for improvement?
  • Did I sound or look stressed?
  • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
  • Was I saying “um” too often?
  • How was the flow of the speech?

Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

Reference

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