Being a good listener can be the difference between recognizing opportunity, and completely missing the boat. It can be the difference between your colleagues getting excited about programs you'd like to launch, or early detection of a problem for your company through employee or customer feedback.
Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism has advice around mastering listening as a skill. If there is one thing you focus on learning in 2014, I encourage you to consider the science of listening. I believe listening is more science than art because it's something you can get better at through a series of specific steps. Cabane believes charisma is something you learn -- not something you're born with. Which means anyone can be charismatic. The road to charisma is paved with good listening skills. You will find listening to be a critical tool for you at work, and in your personal life too. Here is my take on four tips from author Cabane and Susan Cain, the author of The Power of Quiet.
1. Listening is not about letting someone talk until it's your turn.
One of the most common mistakes people make is equating listening with "letting people talk until it's my turn." Author Cabane explains that effective listening means behaving in a way that makes whomever you're speaking with feel truly understood. From my personal experience, I believe that's what most people want anyway -- to feel heard. They yearn to feel truly understood -- their feelings recognized and validated. It's very easy to drift, zone out or multi-task while someone is talking. By being a good listener, you automatically increase your like-ability. If you're like-able, it's likely whatever you're trying to achieve will be easier to do so with the cooperation of the person across the table.
2. Pausing makes you more attractive.
It's often in the gaps -- what is not being said, that makes the listener an engaging conversationalist. Cabane says master listeners pause before they answer. In her book she cites the pianist Artur Schnabel who once said: "The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes-ah, that is where the art resides." Pausing makes other people feel good about themselves when they're around you -- it's an easy way to "make people feel intelligent, interesting and even impressive." Can you imagine pausing making other people feel impressive? That seems counter to the idea that charismatic people talk fast. In reality the most charismatic people take pauses and breathe deeply in between statements.
3. Interrupting is a real mood killer.
Good listeners know never, ever to interrupt -- not even if the impulse to do so comes from excitement about something the other person just said. No matter how congratulatory and warm your input, it will always result in their feeling at least a twinge of resentment or frustration at not having been allowed to complete their sentence.
Being a person who gets very excited and passionate about ideas is a good thing. However, being a person who cannot control their own speech because of this excitement is not a good thing. Listening is an art because most people just aren't very good at it. But it's not anyone's fault per say. We don't emphasize this in school. What we teach is the louder you shout, and the more you shout, the better chance you have of your message getting across. This is so contrary to the art of conversation -- how could we have strayed so far from the truth?
It was over the last century, says Susan Cain, author of The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking, that at a certain point:
Society began reshaping itself as an extrovert's paradise -- to the introvert's demise. She explains that before the twentieth century, we lived in what historians called a 'culture of character,' when you were expected to conduct yourself morally with quiet integrity. But when people starting flocking to the cities and working for big businesses the question became, how do I stand out in a crowd?
We morphed into a "culture of personality," which she says sparked a fascination with "glittering movie stars, bubbly employees and outgoing leadership." Technology has made the immediacy of everything possible. But it also destroyed patience along the way. If you can restore patience, you will automatically differentiate yourself in business and in life.
4. Eye contact makes you a better listener.
In her book, Cain offers an example of John Lilly, former CEO of Mozilla, as an example of how important eye contact is in everyday interactions. At his offices he would force himself to walk the halls and make eye contact because he didn't realize how much it "offended people when he didn't greet them." Cabane and Cain both agree on the importance of being present, and acknowledging the other person through eye contact. Cabane says presence is a cornerstone of effective listening. You already have all the tools you need to avoid mind-wandering while someone else is talking.
Eye contact is not just important with the people around you that you love, it's important to hold eye contact with colleagues and customers alike. Don't believe me? Anthropologist Helen Fisher explained that when you stare with intensity at someone, it can speed up their heart rate and send a hormone called phenylethylamine or PEA coursing through their bloodstream -- the same hormone in "love at first site." Cabane says:
Why are your eyes called the 'windows to the soul'? Because they are the most mobile part of the entire face--and so the most expressive. Try keeping eye contact for three full seconds at the end of your interaction with someone. If you have trouble feeling confident look at the different colors you see in their eyes, the different shades playing around their pupils.
We no longer live in a world where the loudest person wins. In truth the individual who listens, wins. The company who listens wins. So in 2014 let's remember how important listening actually is. I encourage you to engage without a screen between you and the other person -- and give people your attention.
Good luck with all your conversations in 2014, and cheers to the science of listening.