“If we were meant to talk more than listen, we would have two mouths and one ear.” So said author Mark Twain.
It is all too easy, however, to listen with the intention of replying rather than understanding, according to leadership coach Sarah Ashworth.
“Have you noticed how ‘listen’ has the same letters as the word ‘silent’?” she notes. “The most successful people are the ones who do more listening than talking.”
Being silent during a conversation can take some practice, however. It essentially means not jumping in on other people’s sentences and not talking over the to insert your own opinion.
Are you actually paying attention?
“You need to be ‘present’ for the person who you are trying to communicate with,” says Ashworth. “This means you are totally focussed on the other person. You are not listening to a rugby match which happens to be on in the background, or glancing at your phone, or looking over their shoulder to see if there is someone else more interesting to talk to. You are totally present for them.”
You don’t just listen with your ears either. “You listen with your eyes too,” Ashworth says. “You watch their body language, you see and hear their emotional communication, and you make eye contact and maintain it during the conversation.”
This should help someone feel understood which should, in turn, help build trust and confidence. “If someone feels they are listened to and heard, it releases oxytocin in them which is the bonding hormone,” Ashworth explains. “It makes them feel significant, they believe you totally understand their situation and that you care, which builds both trust in you and your expertise.”
Combating stress and anxiety
On a personal level, good listening can also create mindfulness, which is one of the most important skills we can master to help combat stress and anxiety. “By learning how to be a good listener, you are contributing to someone else’s well being. This releases serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and a number of other hormones which makes you, and the other person, feel happier, empowered, and more relaxed,” says Ashworth.
Daniel Kiernan, careers consultant in finance at Henley Business School, says that good listening can also bring a number of benefits to your career. “Accounting is not just about numbers,” he notes. “We all know that it involves working closely with others and developing strong relationships – and listening is one way of cementing those relationships.”
Listening attentively can help influence people by showing them that you are genuinely interested in them, and help you learn and develop new skills and topics.
If someone feels they are listened to and heard, it releases oxytocin in them which is the bonding hormone
Negative levels of listening
There are, however, a number of different levels of listening, ranging from ignoring, pretend listening (when you say things like “I see” and “okay’ but your mind is elsewhere) and selective listening – when you only pay attention to the speaker if they are talking about things you agree with or are interested in.
Then there is, says Kiernan, empathic listening. “You are focused on what the other person is saying, how they are saying it, and what their body language and tone of voice is telling you,” he explains. “The speaker is doing 80% of the talking and you are showing your interest by nodding and making encouraging “um-hums” and “go-ons”.
During emphatic listening, you show your understanding by summarising and paraphrasing what has been said, and following up with either open questions to explore the topic, or closed questions to clarify your understanding. “Your starting point,” says Kiernan “is curiosity. You have to be genuinely curious about what the speaker has to say.”
Helen Williams, coach and founder of Rose & Butterfly, says that to be properly listened to is a gift and that it doesn’t have to be too time-consuming or onerous. “Five minutes of quality, focused listening is much more effective than 15 minutes of distracted listening, where you end up resenting the time being taken up and let your mind drift off,” she notes.
A good listener equals a good role model
Good listeners, Williams’ believes, also make the best role models, both in and outside the workplace. “It’s quite probable that the colleagues we look up to the most are also the ones who listen best,” she notes. “Perhaps they take an interest in our life outside work as well as our work priorities, or perhaps they remember what we’ve said in a meeting and reference it elsewhere in the business.”
These actions, says Williams, make them appear wiser and can make us feel valued. “If they have that impact on us, what impact could you have if you committed to being a better listener?”
Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.