Every weeknight, I type audio transcriptions. It’s my proverbial day job. By the time I get the recordings, the conversations have concluded. So I am a captive listener.
These recordings have taught me a lot about how to listen well to others. Having to listen carefully and quietly to conversations, and having to catch every word, teaches me what to do and what not to do in listening well to others.
When it comes to listening well in my own everyday conversations, I am a work in progress. I still have many ways I don’t listen well. But I have discovered how these lessons are helping me become a better listener in my daily interactions. Amazing what listening can teach us.
(1) Be courteous in your conversations. If someone is giving you their time, honor them with courtesy.
(2) Listen. When someone else is talking, be fully present. Don’t be thinking ahead of what you want to say next. Resist the urge to cut people off. Don’t try to supply a word or a thought for them, and don’t try to finish their sentence. The minute you do, you have disengaged from them. Let them fully express what they want to say. Take it all in. Then respond.
This may be harder in a group because someone else might jump in before you can follow up. That’s okay. Either work out a system ahead of time (the best idea), and/or encourage everyone to be aware and honoring of everyone else. If everyone is on board, there should be a pause each time a person finishes speaking, when you can calmly speak up next. If two folks start in at once, stop and decide who will go next (often based on whether it’s a direct follow up or a new topic), and then follow up in turn.
(3) In many formal conversations, one person will be designated to lead the meeting. That’s great. Ideally that person will know how to include the other participants if that’s the objective. But if you are not the designated leader of the conversation, be careful that you don’t take it over. Some of us seem to be wired that way, while others will shy back if not prompted or given space to speak up. Stop frequently and ask others if they want to contribute. Be especially aware of people who are quiet by nature. They have a wealth to contribute but may hold back unless prompted and encouraged.
(4) When you’re in a conversation and you accidentally interrupt or start talking over someone else, get in the habit of stopping and saying, “Go ahead.” And defer to the other person. However, interruptions do happen. If you’ve already moved on and ended up with the floor, or changed the subject, finish what you’re saying. But remember what the other person had started to say. Then go back and say, “I’m sorry. I interrupted you. You were saying XYZ.” And let them take it from there. Even if you didn’t catch what they were saying, just say, “I’m sorry. I interrupted you.” And then be quiet while they gather their thoughts.
(5) If you have the privilege to interview someone older than you, resist the urge to keep peppering the conversation with everything you think you know. Be quiet and listen to what this person has to say. What an incredible blessing to listen to someone with wisdom and experience that you can learn from.
(6) The same can be said if you are interviewing someone younger. If you have called the interview, then be open to learning from them. Give them the floor. Don’t discount them because they are young. They bring a fresh perspective and a new worldview that can shine new light on the things you’ve always known and done. Even though they haven’t lived as long as you, they may have already had experiences of the kind you’ve never had. Listen and learn.
(7) Whether you are in a group setting or one-on-one, find a healthy balance with how you give affirmation during the conversation. When someone is speaking, they appreciate seeing signs of engagement, like eye contact, occasional head nodding, or facial expressions that show folks are connecting with what is being said. But on the side of the listener, you can overdo this. It’s good to learn the difference between genuine, healthy engagement and self-focused affirmations.
I’ve heard and seen many conversations where one person is speaking, and another person continually makes verbal affirmations out loud. The person giving these verbal affirmations ends up talking over the speaker. These aren’t healthy, responsive affirmations. The person is so focused on commenting that they are actually disengaged from what the speaker is saying. It comes across that they, the listener, actually want to speak, like a horse ready to run out of the gate. They are not in listening mode. Rather, they are in “I can’t wait to speak” mode.
In a one-on-one conversation, this behavior is distracting to both speaker and listener. It sounds like two separate conversations are taking place at once. By talking over the speaker with continual affirmations, the listener misses things the speaker is saying. In a group conversation, these verbal affirmations make it hard for others to hear the speaker. This activity also puts the spotlight on the person giving those affirmations, whether these are verbal or over-the-top gestures.
Ideally instead, the focus should be on listening to the speaker. Any gestures of affirmation should come naturally from being fully engaged with what the speaker is saying. This comes across very differently and more respectfully than the disruptive type of verbal feedback. And in a group setting, keeping affirmations quiet will ensure a good listening environment for everyone.
If you find yourself doing lots of verbal affirmations when someone else is speaking, ask yourself where in your life you believed a lie that you’re not being heard. Can you forgive whoever taught you that lie, and now rest in knowing that you can be heard for who you are, rather than by trying to force yourself into the conversation?
(8) If you are part of a meeting or conversation, don’t belittle yourself. Speak up, clearly. Don’t lower your voice, don’t talk like a mouse or swallow your words at the end of a sentence. Not only does that make it harder for people to hear and understand, but it’s also self-effacing. If you are seated at the table, then be all in and recognize that you are just as important to the conversation as others. Everyone has a different perspective to contribute, and the team will work better if all voices are heard clearly.
(9) Slow down. Don’t talk so fast. Be aware if you have a tendency to slur your words. Ask someone who knows you well if you talk too fast. Ask colleagues if you’re hard to understand at meetings. Record yourself talking (ask a friend to help you and get permission to record) and see if your speech is clear or not. Figure out how to slow down and enunciate. Even better, search your heart for the lies you believe about yourself that would cause you not to speak clearly or be heard well.
(10) Punctuate your sentences. Pause. Breathe. If you speak in one long run on sentence, it’s hard for people to follow what you’re saying or to take it all in. You’ll be on your fourth topic when they’re still trying to process your first topic. They’ll feel like they’re drinking from a firehose. In self-preservation, they will check out. They will miss most of what you’re saying, and it will be hard for them to reconnect with you for the remainder of the conversation.
(11) Don’t be afraid of silence. This is a big one. Most people find silence awkward. But silence is a beautiful part of every conversation, or it should be. Silence helps you to be more present with those you’re talking with. In a meeting, silence helps people digest what’s being said and gives creative time to think. If you’re planning a meeting, how about building in intentional pockets of silence, and let your attendees know you’re going to do that?
If you are interviewing someone, presumably you want to know what they have to say. So when you ask them a question, give them time to really think and respond thoughtfully. Don’t fill in their silence by elaborating on your question. If they need more, they will ask.
Throughout the conversation, resist the urge to fill in silence with a comment. Take the time to process what was just spoken, rather than rushing on to the next thing you want to say. If you give yourself a moment to be quiet, you may come up with deeper insights regarding what was just said. You want to have those epiphanies while the person you’re talking with is still there, rather than later as you’re reviewing your notes.
If you are being interviewed, take your time before responding. Gather your thoughts. Don’t just start out saying something and then have to quickly backtrack or switch directions. False starts are hard for a listener to follow. Just give yourself a quiet moment to decide what you’re going to say.
(12) Make it a point to spend more of your day listening than talking. Be fully present with people. Listen to what they have to say. Any day where you set out to do more listening than talking is going to be a richer day for you.
(13) Ask other people questions. Ask them to elaborate. Try to learn more about them. If they, in turn, ask more about you, answer them. But then find a stopping place, and turn around and ask them something more about themselves. Don’t let your own answer become a runaway train, and they never get the spotlight again.
People are a gift. A conversation with another person is a blessing. If someone has crossed your path today, they are worth your time in listening and getting to know them better. Even if you never see them again, you’ve been blessed because you’ve allowed them to share a moment of their life with you. Don’t miss it.
Copyright © 2020 by Janet Eriksson
Janet Eriksson is an intercessor, writer, and teacher in Dahlonega, Georgia. She loves conversation with friends, front porch swings, sweet tea, and spending time on lakes and rivers. The author of nine books and editor of many more, Janet blogs and teaches at Adventures with God. She enjoys volunteering with Transformations. Janet received her M. Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary.