Did you hear what I said?”
Gulp. I’d been caught, red-handed, and not even at work where my coworkers would cut me some slack.
“Mom, you’re here, but you’re not listening to what I’m saying,” my daughter Annie said, clearly exasperated. And she was right. I had started our conversation fully focused on her, but as soon as I had the gist of what she was saying, my mind started to wander to my to-do list and then to an email I had recently received. I was so busy solving these other problems that I didn’t even notice when Annie stopped talking. She was hurt, and I could see it. But this wasn’t the first time.
The truth is, I’m not naturally a good listener. I have a busy life, and my brain is hardwired to constantly be doing and accomplishing. As soon as I’ve taken in enough information to understand the basics of whatever problem or topic is being discussed, my natural inclination is to move on. There are times when this tendency serves me well and helps me to process information very efficiently, but it can also cripple my ability to listen well. Over time I’ve realized that, in both life and work, listening can be more necessary—and more powerful—than doing.
Re-Learning the Art of Listening
First and foremost, we should learn to listen well because the Bible commands it. James 1:19 admonishes us as Christians to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” We are to listen first and listen fully before formulating a response or reacting emotionally. For a multitasking addict like me, it takes real effort to slow my brain down and absorb what someone else is saying. But good news! Listening is a skill that can be learned and improved, and when put into practice, listening has a big impact.
Listening well cuts down on miscommunication. It makes the people around you feel respected and cared for. It shows your child how very much she matters to you, and it shows your coworkers that you value their time and opinions. In my experience, when people feel respected at work, they are more satisfied, more motivated, and more productive. Managers who master the art of listening tend to see better results from their teams.
That’s all part of why, after one too many conversations ending like the one above, I asked Annie, one of the best listeners I know, to help me improve. Together we devised a sort of “listening mantra” for me to use when a situation comes up where I know I need to listen carefully. I simply say to myself, “Diane, put your cell phone away.” I mean it literally—turning my phone off helps me to focus—but also figuratively. For someone who’s accomplishment-driven and prone to multitasking like me, the cell phone represents a powerful distraction. Turning it off or slipping it into my purse is my little way of flipping a mental switch; it helps me to break out of my natural “do-do-do” mode and into listening mode.
If for some reason I have to keep my phone handy, I make a point to apologize, explain why, and ask for permission to do so. This has happened a lot lately due to family illness, and I find that it goes a long way toward making whoever I’m speaking with feel respected, even if I do end up having to take a call.
Over time, I’ve also developed a few other habits that help make me a better listener. When I’m listening to my family or friends as they are sharing something important, I put everything down and look them in the eyes. At work, where presentations are longer and more information-driven, I find that jotting a few notes helps me to stay focused and remember more. I’m sure to look up, though, and catch the speaker’s eyes regularly so that they know I’m paying attention to what they say and not just formulating my own response.
This last part is especially important, and it’s a classic mistake people make in meetings. If you are thinking fast about how you’re going to respond to what’s being said, then you are at best a distracted listener, and that means that you might be missing out on nuances of what is being communicated. Get in the habit of listening first, then repeating back your understanding of the issue before launching into your response. That way, you can make sure that you understand the perspective of the person you’re talking to, and you make it more likely that they will be receptive to what you have to say.
Find Your Rhythm
I’ve also learned that in any given day, there are times that are going to be better or worse for listening well. I am a true “morning person.” I focus and problem-solve better in the morning than at any other time during the day. I tend to hit a lull in the afternoon, and by 7:00 P.M. my brain is just about spent. By taking this natural rhythm into account, I can try to plan my day in a way that helps set me up for success. If I know they’re coming, I try to plan “big” family decisions or discussions for the morning hours, and I do the same at work if I know someone is going to be asking for help on a problem or presenting on a critical project. I find it easier to focus and listen critically at those times. For the afternoon “lull” hours, I plan more collaborative meetings or work sessions, where I know I’ll be energized by working together with other people. And in general I try never to make any big decisions (family, work, or otherwise) after 7:00 at night.
These are the listening “tricks” that work for me. Maybe you have your own tricks (if so, please share!), or maybe you’re one of those natural-born listeners. Wherever you stand, I encourage you to be mindful about how (or if) you are employing your listening skills and what messages you are sending. Listening is a silent activity that speaks volumes.