Q: I’m concerned that my listening skills aren’t as good as they should be. My attention wanders sometimes, and I find after conversations that I haven’t asked everything I should and my memory of the conversation is vague. What can I do?
A: Effective listening is the cornerstone of effective communication, which, in turn, is key to successful relationships in business—and all other aspects of life, too.
The inner game
Distraction is likely playing a part in your listening issues, so practice gaining focus will be especially helpful in this situation. Set aside some time to use your breathing to become calm and centered. Focus on letting your breath go deep, not thinking about anything except the movement of the air in and out of your body.
Now compare your state of being with your typical day-to-day condition, and consider how the more centered state of being may be able to enhance your listening skills. Are you normally a bit hectic, running from topic to topic and task to task? That’s a common condition for us in business these days. And if your brain hasn’t caught up, you’re not going to retain as much you otherwise might.
Get more specific about your concerns, looking at some examples of lapses in your listening skills and seeking patterns in the occurrences. Is it harder to focus with certain people? Times of day? Levels of activity or distraction? And what happens as you lose focus? Are you thinking about what you want to say, paying too much attention to external events, or just daydreaming? As you become more clear on the details, it’ll be easier to prepare yourself so that you can improve.
Assess yourself on your active listening skills. Maintaining eye contact, asking clarifying questions, concentrating on what others are saying and not what you’ll say next — all of these skills will serve you well, so identifying those on which you fall short will help you focus your development.
The outer game
Let’s focus now on some practical skills to improve your listening.
First, know the purpose of your interaction. If you’re in a meeting to plan a project, you need to be asking the right questions, be absorbing the responses, and doing any clarification necessary. Preparation will help — knowing exactly what you need from the meeting — so that you can be sure that you’ve taken in the necessary information.
Some interactions are more spontaneous. In these cases, notice when your attention wanders and bring it back to the conversation. Take some deep breaths to help re-engage in the present moment. If you get distracted, acknowledge it with an apology. Taking that active step will help keep you in the conversation.
Do some follow-up. When a conversation is complete, take time to reflect on it. Quiz yourself a bit on what you discussed and what you learned. If appropriate, take some notes so that you further anchor the information. All of these techniques will help retain the information, and will also point out to you times in which your listening skills lapsed.
The last word
Improving your listening skills just takes some focus, and will make a big difference in your professional success.