How to Listen Effectively in a Highly Distracting Environment

At a time when communication is easier than ever, people ironically devote less time to genuinely listening to each other. Genuine listening now feels like a luxury. We'd instead check our emails or read our Facebook timeline at the dinner table than engage in a meaningful conversation with the person sitting in front of us.

Effective listening is something that we've taken for granted. A significant waste of opportunity, because it's through effective listening that we build relationships, resolve conflicts, establish understanding, and improve processes. Listening creates careers and friendships and preserves marriages and corporations. To a great extent, effective leadership is effective listening. According to Miick, “with clear communication comes the ability for leaders in an organization to actually define excellence.”

The problem is everyone seems to think they're a good listener, like effective listening is a default gift of nature, as opposed to being a skill that needs to be mindfully developed.

If you want to know how it is to listen effectively, read on.

Do: Maintain Eye Contact 

In many Western cultures, eye contact is not only a form of courtesy but is considered a necessary component of effective communication. Today, it almost feels like second nature to peer down at your phone screen even when someone is talking to or around you. It's not always intentional, but it's this kind of mindlessness that needs to be unlearned if you want to communicate effectively. 

To have a meaningful and productive conversation, get rid of anything that can lead to distraction. Put aside your laptop, your phone, papers, books. Look your conversational partner in the eye, even if they don't return the favor. The focus here is on you.

Do: Be Attentive

talking at a restaurant

It's one thing to maintain eye contact, it's another to be attentive. Now, what does “attentive” really mean? From the root word “attend”, which means to give attention, to be present, to pay attention, and to remain ready to serve. Genuine attentiveness means the ability to mentally block out all potential distractions, including background noise, the speaker's mannerisms, and even your own thoughts, feelings, and biases.

Don't: Jump to Conclusions

Mentally forming opinions as you're fed information is normal. But to listen effectively is to listen without judging the speaker, not visibly anyway. As soon as they feel like they're being judged, you've already compromised your position as an effective listener

Let them finish their train of thought. Do not be a sentence-grabber just because the speaker's mental pace is not fast enough for you. The only way you can hear and internalize what they're saying is to listen. Just listen.

Don't: Impose Your Solutions

Interrupting someone when they're talking is not only rude but sends a potentially communication-severing message: 

  • What I'm about to say is more important than what you're saying. 
  • I'm bored with your opinion.
  • I don't care about what you feel.
  • I'm more interesting than you.

People have different mental and speech paces. If you're a quick thinker and speaker, you're the one in charge of slowing down to accommodate your partner. When they're expressing a problem, don't spring your solution on them. Don't assume that everyone wants advice. If they do, they'll ask for it. 

If you want to be helpful, at least ask, “would you like to hear my ideas?”

Effective listening is a skill that must be practiced and preserved at every turn of our lives. It's the thread that connects people productively and meaningfully. Next time you talk to someone, keep these pointers in mind.

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