Listening – potential barriers and guidelines to get better at it
Why can it seem so challenging to be a good listener? Why is it so rare to be heard on a deeper level? What are some steps we can take to get better at it? How do professional listeners (aka: coaches, therapists) do it? What techniques can we learn from them?
Why did I choose this tool? I chose this tool because it is a part of a training for coaches on how to be better listeners. The level of listening of a coach needs to be deep, focused and free of judgement, but these skills don’t need to be limited to coaches. They can be understood and applied by anyone with the desire and willingness to do it.
How does this apply to being a trainer? A major part of delivering a training is actually listening to and understanding participants. Being able to really listen to participants can make the difference between an amazing training and a mediocre one. Because it is only when the participants feel listened to and understood that they really become open to learning and growing, and they listen to what you have to offer.
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Common Obstacles to Listening
What are some common obstacles to listening, and how can we overcome them?
The most common obstacles are:
Here is a more in-depth explanation for each of these obstacles:
- Being Judgmental: You listen only to gain support for the images you already have
When you have a preestablished idea in your mind of what the speaker will say and why, this can prevent you from being able to listen to them. If these ideas are negative, it can also prevent empathy from being present. Before you start the conversation, wipe the slate of your mind clean and make a decision to be open to whatever the person might want to say, even if it’s different from what you think they would say.
- Rehearsing: You actively create your argument against the speaker’s point of view as it is being presented
This can happen when you are very invested in the topic and very opinionated about it. While supposedly “listening” you are actually dwelling on your own thoughts and how you will get your own point across. While this kind of listening may have a time and place (for instance if you’re also a lawyer that needs quick and strong arguments) but it doesn’t help with fostering a relationship with the listener and a deep level of understanding. Put your own thoughts aside for a moment and focus on theirs instead.
- Mind reading: You may disregard what the speaker is saying and try to surmise what they really mean
Although you may be good at understanding people’s true motivations and unspoken intentions, it is better not to be drawing these conclusions at the moment they are speaking as it can come across as uncaring or disrespectful. Only base your conclusions on what they actually say, not on what you assume they mean, and make these conclusions after they have finished saying their piece. If appropriate, particularly in a training setting, you can verify your conclusions with them by asking “is it fair to say that you are feeling such and such about the topic”, and give them the chance to confirm whether or not your conclusions are correct.
- Advising: Giving advice, instead of just listening, to make yourself feel needed. (Or it may be a way of distancing yourself from the speaker’s true feelings.)
This video is a very good and comical illustration of this point:
It’s not about the nail:
The truth is, even though you may know exactly what the solution is to the problem, if the person is expressing strong feelings and not yet in problem solving mode, it can be difficult for them to be open to the solution before they feel that you care about their feelings. Once they feel cared about and understood by you, they will be in a better state to actually solve the problem. I like to describe it as logic appeals to logic, emotion appeals to emotion. Have you ever tried to have a logical discussion with someone who was really emotional? And by the same token have you ever tried expressing your feelings when someone was just focused on the facts and figures? To make someone feel understood, try to get on the same wavelength as them especially if it is the emotional one. Sometimes in a training we may be discussing something that seems purely logical, but it could turn out to be very personal to someone who has a personal experience connected to this. Be open to this and ready to support the participants in different ways if the situation calls for it.
- Pleasing: You are so concerned about being nice and placating that you will not hesitate to interrupt to agree just in order to maintain peace. But, it prevents you from hearing what the speaker needs to say.
In many cases true understanding is more valuable then agreeing with the speaker. If you automatically agree with everything, it means you’re not really listening to what they’re saying. Agreeing and pleasing is more about you (making sure that you are seen as a nice person, or about avoiding problems for yourself, or believing that you have the final say on whether something is good or not) then it is about the participants. When you are really listening, there will be moments when you agree and moments when you disagree. In some cases, it might be worthwhile to voice this, in some cases not. In any case, this should be secondary to actually listening to what is being said.
- Filtering: You will hear some things the speaker says, but not everything
This can happen when you have a preset agenda, so your mind is filtering out everything that doesn’t fit into it. This one is a bit tricky because as a trainer you do have specific goals in mind and it is important to be heading towards them rather then allowing any one of the participants to take the training in any direction they want. So, although there may be some filtering going in terms of which parts of what is being said you will choose to build on, it’s important that you also listen to, understand and acknowledge what the speaker says as a whole so that they don’t feel misunderstood, manipulated or railroaded. This can happen if they feel that what they are saying is just a means to an end for you instead of that it really matters to you what they think or feel.
- Deflecting: You redirect by changing the subject or telling a joke when the topic is uncomfortable for you
This is the reason why it’s important that we work on ourselves and heal our own wounds, so that we can reach a point where there aren’t any “untouchable areas” for us. We can only support others’ development as far as we have gone ourselves, so if there are some topics that you find yourself uncomfortable with or automatically deflecting, it’s important to look for ways to heal them so that they don’t limit our effectiveness as trainers.
Guidelines for good listening:
- Remember the rule to make them “feel important”!
You don’t have to flatter them, just acknowledging what they are saying, and especially what they are feeling if relevant, is a very effective way of showing someone that they matter.
- Don’t interrupt when the other person is speaking. Allow the speaker to complete his/her thought.
This one can be a bit tricky as a trainer as well, because there are times when people go off on tangents and we feel responsible for the training to reach its goals and for the rest of the participants. If you do need to interrupt someone, make sure you do it as kindly and as subtly as possible. For instance, you can say, “That’s a fascinating story, can I ask you to summarize the aspect that you think is applicable to what we are discussing now?” When they answer, it’s important that their answer is fully acknowledged, and then you can move along. Also, if you are having a discussion and people are raising their hands to speak, make sure that everyone gets a chance to say what they intended to even if you have to ask them to keep it short or summarized. Being asked to say something, then forming your thoughts and being ready to share them, then not getting the chance to, can make participants feel not cared about at best and manipulated at worst. Remember that people’s words also carry their experiences, their feelings, their joy and even their pain sometimes. Be gentle with them, without losing your sense of purpose and direction in the training. It takes practice, but it is certainly possible to do both.
- Eliminate distractions.
This would seem to go without saying, but if you as a trainer are constantly preoccupied with your phone, computer or other things that are not related to the training experience, this will greatly decrease the participants’ motivation to engage. If you need to take care of something else, it is better to either not be in the room during the session if your co-trainer is delivering it, or to be somewhere out of the sight of the participants if you are working on your computer, etc. Otherwise participants get the subconscious message that you don’t really care about the training or about them, so why should they engage?
- Maintain eye contact with the speaker, without giving the impression of “staring”.
In a training setting, if you are the one speaking then continually make the effort to make eye contact with all the participants. Those you do make eye contact with will be more connected to you and the training, and those you don’t have a higher chance of disengaging from the process. When a participant is speaking, always make eye contact and make sure that your body language is saying “I’m interested in what you have to say, it’s important to me”.
- Show interest by pulling your chair closer and leaning forward
This is one way to show your interest and care in what is being said. Of course, if you’re with a group you won’t be able to continually do this with all the participants and it might seem a bit strange if you do. In this case, have your chair somewhere central where you can see everyone and lean forward slightly towards the whole group and/or the person speaking at that moment to show your interest.
- Keep your posture aligned with that of your target – mirror and match.
In a group setting, naturally it won’t be possible or even necessarily good to mirror and match everyone. So just adopt a generally open caring body language and pretty soon the participants who are engaged in the process will actually start mirroring and matching you 😊.
- Give verbal and non-verbal responses to what the speaker is saying.
Showing your real emotions about what is being said is one of the best ways to establish rapport, because it gives the message that they are talking to a real human being and not cold and heartless. If something they say makes you laugh, or makes you sad, just let it show on your face in a natural way (without over dramatizing it of course). Don’t fake it though, this can come across as phony and manipulative. Make sure that you are in touch with your own emotions in everyday life, and showing your emotions in a training setting will be natural to you. Nodding when relevant (not automatically but thoughtfully) and smiling genuinely can be effective non-verbal ways of encouraging participants to share. Showing emotions and being a professional trainer don’t have to conflict, in fact emotions can greatly enhance the experience. This happens when the emotions are genuine, and when you are caring and considerate of the participants’ feelings as well as your own.
“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”- Marianne Williamson
Which listening barriers I most often encounter?
What could be the reason for that?
Do I want to change it?
What are practical steps that I can take to do so?
How will it help me to improve as a trainer?
How will it improve my everyday life and relationships?
How to apply it in everyday life:
Every week you can choose to work on one aspect of your listening skills. It will be easier then trying to focus on everything at once. It’s best to practice it in every day life, so that it comes naturally when you’re in a training setting. When you feel you have mastered one aspect, move on to the next one. Write down when it goes well and also when it doesn’t. Write down the differences in the reactions or the changes in the relationship that start to happen as a result of your improved skills.