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Back to Basics: How to be an Effective Listener

Posted on June 12, 2020


Co-workers having a conversation

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Power Moves by Lauren McGoodwin


Civil unrest. COVID-19. Re-opening the economy. Police brutality. Black Lives Matter. Defund the police. Racism. Violence. Protests. Resignations. Political crossfire.

Fellow government friends, it is a complete and utter understatement to say that we have a lot going on in our world right now. It is overwhelming. My head is spinning. I am upset and angry. You are upset. Our friends, family, leaders, and colleagues are upset.

Despite all of this, but also because of all of this, we have an opportunity right now to have powerful and meaningful conversations surrounding the issues that we are facing. Listening is an action we consciously make. While this may sound obvious, the implementation of this action can be more difficult than it sounds.

When we are upset or highly emotional, it can be easy to shutdown or tune out during difficult conversations. But I invite you, dear ELGL-ers, to go back to the basics of being an effective listener, so that we can hold these important conversations, learn from them, and grow from them.

  1. Give the speaker your undivided attention. Put your phone away. Do not scan the room. Do not check email.
  2. Keep an open mind. Turn off your agenda. You may not agree with everything the speaker is saying. You may have to listen to opposing views and this may be uncomfortable for you. But at times like these, we need information that is disconfirming, not confirming. Withhold your judgement.
  3. Listen to understand. As Stephen Covey famously stated, “the biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” It will take effort to listen with such intense intent, but this is where the magic of the conversation happens.listen up people meow
  4. Do not interrupt. This can frustrate the speaker, and may cause them to shut down. It also limits your full understanding of the message.
  5. Do not automatically offer solutions. When you care about someone, it is human nature to want to help and figure out a way to fix the problem. Often, people are looking to let off steam, convey emotion, or just vent. They may not want a solution at all. If you are unsure of what they want out of this conversation, just ask.
  6. Pay attention to non-verbal cues. Non-verbal cues make up the majority of our messaging. In addition to the speaker’s language, pay attention to their facial expressions, fidgeting, gestures, posture, and tone of voice.
  7. Convey support and confidentiality. Create a safe space for the speaker. Understand that this is their story to tell and for you not to share.
  8. Do not fight silence. Long pauses may seem awkward to you, but I assure you, you will get through it. The speaker might not know how to fully express difficult emotions or feelings. Do not feel the need to fill the space with words.
  9. Provide small verbal encouragements. While silence is ok, if you feel like your conversation partner is struggling to keep going, offer small words of encouragement.
  10. Summarize what was said. Confirm you are understanding what the speaker is saying. You can start by saying “what I’m hearing is…”
  11. Don’t mind read. Do not assume that you know the intent or the feelings behind the words that are being said. If you are unsure, ask clarifying questions.
  12. Be self-aware. Be aware of your own facial expressions as you react to what the listener is telling you. Maintain open body language – uncross your arms, lean into the speaker, face them, make eye contact, and nod your head at appropriate times.

Do you have any tried and true tips on how to be an effective listener? What helps you stay engaged?

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