Handling difficult conversations requires you to have good communication skills. And to be a good communicator, you need to be a good listener first and foremost. However, ‘listening’ is not the same as ‘hearing’ – and it’s harder than you first think. Research suggests that we remember between 25% and 50% of what we hear. That means that when you talk to someone for 10 minutes, they pay attention to less than half of your conversation. Turn it around and it reveals that when you are being presented with information in a conversation, you aren't hearing the whole message either.
By becoming a better listener, you will improve your ability to influence, persuade and negotiate. What's more, you'll avoid conflict and misunderstandings, which are the main source of the pain in those conversations that we consider to be ‘difficult’, where we have to be ‘courageous’. But what exactly does “active listening” mean? Active listening is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, try to understand the complete message by thinking about:
- What words are they using?
- Are they repeating words, phrases, sentences?
- How does their voice sound?
- What’s their body language telling you?
In a difficult conversation, focussing your attention on listening carefully in this way can significantly reduce the nervousness you might be feeling. Why? Because it redirects your focus from what is going on inside your head to the other person and what their needs might be. By placing your focus, through active listening, squarely upon them, you show that you are interested in their challenges and ready to work with them collaboratively to solve the issue being discussed, rather than just winning the argument.
To listen actively in a courageous conversation, make sure that you:
- Give the person your 100% attention.
Maintain eye contact throughout the conversation to build trust and rapport. So look at them directly, get rid of environmental distractions if you can (open plan offices are not great for active listening), consciously push any intrusive thoughts to one side.
- Show that you are listening by matching them.
Mirror-Match-Pace is a Neuro-Linguistic Meta Program technique which helps us quickly develop a deeper rapport with someone by matching their physiology (posture, gestures, expressions), voice (rhythm, speed, volume, pitch, pace) and language (words, phrases) in a conversation. At a subconscious level, this “matching” sends a powerful message to the other person, that you acknowledge, trust, accept and respect them i.e. you’re “speaking their language”. This in turn leads them to accept you, making them more receptive to your ideas, so your conversation becomes easier.
- Provide regular acknowledgement during the conversation.
It’s good practice to periodically confirm your understanding of what the other person is saying. So paraphrase where necessary “so what I’m hearing is…” and summarise the speaker’s points periodically. Use phrases, such as “I understand…” or “I can see…” to show empathy.
- Don’t butt in when they’re speaking.
Not interrupting during an emotive conversation can be a challenge, but you really must try to be patient and let the person finish their train of thought. You may find that they talk themselves round to your way of thinking, without you saying a word! Also, “active listeners” don’t let their mind focus on the points they’re going to make next, while the person is still speaking – this is how misinterpretations often occur.
- Respond suitably.
You gain nothing in a courageous conversation by going on the attack. If the person feels backed into a corner, they will come out fighting - and you may get hurt! Whilst you should always be honest, you should be respectful too. Focus on treating the other person as you would want them to treat you.
The final article in this series, looks at the flip side to listening - questioning.