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How to improve your listening skills

by | Jul 6, 2021

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

– Maya Angelou

All good conversations – coaching or otherwise – require that we pay really good attention to the other person. 

We all know when someone isn’t really listening to us or giving us their full attention. Even in our increasingly virtual world we know. I can be on a call and realise that the person at the other end is part listening to me and part doing their emails, or the dishes or watching the TV. When this happens to me I notice myself becoming less committed to the conversation. 

Real help, professionally or personally, consists of listening to people, of paying respectful attention to people so that they can access their own ideas first. Usually the brain that contains the problem also contains the solution – often the best one.

– Nancy Kline, Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind 

It seems so obvious – yet paying attention in our very distracted and overstimulated world can be really hard. In my last blog (link to blog) I shared ideas from the book Time to Think by Nancy Kline on how we can improve our attention and listening skills. 

What does good attention look like?

When we pay good attention we really focus on the person front and centre – all else falls away. Think of the last time you were really engrossed in something – maybe eating something you really enjoy, or watching a programme you love. Perhaps listening to one of your children tell a story. What do you notice about your attention?

When we are engrossed we give the object or person all of our focus, listening and attention. We don’t notice what is going on around us.

It is possible to give someone our full attention even if there are lots of distractions around us. I was once coaching in a coffee shop. We were initially disturbed by construction noise – so I asked my client if she wanted to move. She was okay to say – she said she felt my presence. Then the fire alarm went off! I checked again – still okay. As far as she was concerned I was giving her my full attention and we were both able to tune out the background noise. 

So how can we improve our listening skills and our ability to pay attention?

Listening Exercises – 5 Tips for Paying Better Attention 

Here are 5 suggestions for building effective listening skills and improving both your coaching conversations and conversations at home.

1. Slow your breathing down – Notice your own breathing. It can be a sign of how present we are. When I am fully focused and present, my breathing is often slow and deep. When I am thinking or worrying about something it can speed up. There are bonuses in slowing our breathing down. Firstly we relax into listening well. Secondly, it has an impact on the other person and often helps them to calm down and think more clearly.

2. Stop interrupting – Have you ever stopped to think how often you interrupt someone when they are talking to you? Next time you are talking with a friend or partner reflect on this. Many of us are talented at interrupting! The problem is that when we interrupt we stop the person from sharing what they are saying. We are implying that we know better, or we know what they are going to say. Allowing them to finish means we hear their full intent – and not our version of it.

3. Pay appropriate eye contact – Eye contact is often seen as the best indicator of paying good attention to someone – yet we can pay attention without good eye contact and we can have good eye contact and be thinking about lunch! Eye contact holds different meanings in different cultures – in some full eye contact is considered polite, in others rude.  My approach is to ensure I am listening fully to the other person – with my eyes figurally on them – and if appropriate I am looking at their eyes throughout – even if they look away.

4. Be aware of your internal chatter – Our minds are busy – thinking about the things on our today list, noticing our hunger, worrying about the kids. When we are paying attention to our chatter we are not paying attention to the person we are with. Learn to turn your attention away from yourself to the person you are in conversation with. 

5. Allow silence – Silence can feel uncomfortable for many of us. Yet, sometimes a person needs to go into their own mind without talking to think something through. If we can boldly hold the silence whilst they think we are offering them a gift. We are giving our presence and encouragement for their own internal thinking processes. The main trick is to hold the silence for twice as long as it feels comfortable. 

As I shared in my previous blog – when we pay attention to others in this way, it helps them to think more clearly.

Read: Coaching Book – Time to Think | Bailey Balfour

Effective Communication in Virtual Meetings

So much of our listening at work is currently happening on either voice or video calls and this brings additional challenges. We are more easily distracted by our own phones or emails or the other people in our home or work environment. It is harder to focus as we don’t have as much information from body language and we can miss important cues. 

As well as the suggestions above here are a couple of specific tips. 

  • Listen to both what the person is saying and and how they are saying it – pay attention to their tone of voice, the pace they are speaking. Do you hear emotion in what they are saying? How could you curiously find out what they really think or feel?
  • Let the person know you are listening – On video nod your head, acknowledge what they are saying. On the phone use voice comments gently, like ‘yes I hear you, or ‘tell me more’ or even ‘uh-huh’ 

What can you do in the coming weeks to improve your listening and pay better attention?

Jean Balfour is Managing Director of Bailey Balfour and Programme Director of our ICF Accredited Coach Training Programmes (ACTP). Jean is passionate about helping people to have good conversations both at work and at home. She believes that coaching is a life skill and that you never regret learning to coach. 

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