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Active Listening: The Skill of Skills

There’s listening, and then there’s active listening, and either one isn’t waiting for the other person to shut up so you can talk. If you want to elevate your relationships and make more meaningful connections, active listening is your golden ticket.

Active listening is focused empathy. Focused in that your counterpart has your undivided attention. Put away your phone. Make eye contact. Let your counterpart feel like they’re the only person in the room.

Show empathy by suspending your ego long enough to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Allow them to speak without judgement. Keep the focus of the conversation on them.

When you do speak, do one of three things. Mirror, label, or ask a question.

Mirroring is just repeating the critical words of what your counterpart just said. 1–3 words, sometimes more, but not by much. It’s not the same as paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is a summary. Mirroring is using your counterparts words. Just a few of them. Form it in a question.

Here’s an example:

Them: “She was driving me nuts with her incessant tapping!”

You: “Her tapping drove you nuts?”

Them: “Yeah, and she has this really annoying laugh. You’d hate it.”

You: “Annoying laugh, huh?”

Them: “She watches YouTube videos while at work and giggles while I’m trying to get stuff done. Doesn’t she have work to do, too?”

You: “Videos at work?”

…and so on.

Think of mirroring as little prompts for more information. Using their words lets them know that you’re paying attention.

A label puts a name on what the other person is feeling. It’s a way to show your understanding of their situation and/or emotional state. Again, without judgement. The whole point of active listening is to let the other person know they’re being heard and understood and feel comfortable enough to keep talking. They’re not going to do that if you’re attacking their opinions or making them feel guilty for feeling the way they do. Body language and tone are critical. Both are important no matter what, but they’re really important when you’re labeling something.

Earlier I described an annoying workplace event. Here’s a label about that:

“It seems that you’re frustrated that your co-worker is goofing off while you’re trying to get things done.”

Then you wait. This is important. Wait. Let them speak next. Give them time to absorb your words and respond.

It’s equally important to note the absence of the word “I” in that label. You’ll be tempted to use “I think you’re X” or “I feel like you’re saying Y”. Don’t. Leave yourself out of it. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about them. Instead, use “it seems…”

You can learn more about labeling in Chris Voss’ excellent book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended On It. It’s a fantastic look at the use of these techniques from the perspective of negotiation. Voss says you know you’ve done a label right when your counterpart replies with, “That’s right!” or “Exactly!”

The third thing is ask a question. Not any old question. An open-ended question. The open-ended question gives a place for the conversation to go, and invites your counterpart to say what they really think about something. We love talking about what we think.

Avoid asking anything that can be answered with a simple yes or no. A yes or no answer is short and to the point, and often doesn’t lead into anything natural or interesting. A “no” can even kill a conversation.

A yes or no question can also sound accusatory. We have to think about what position we’re staking out when we say yes or no. When using a yes or no question, it’s really easy to put your counterpart on the defensive.

In the above scenario, avoid questions like:

  • “Did you tell your co-worker they should stop goofing off?”
  • “Did you tell your manager?”
  • “Oh, come on, haven’t you ever watched YouTube videos at work?”

An open-ended question isn’t like that. An open-ended question means we can expand on something. We’re not saying yes, and we’re not saying no. Open-ended questions lets us play around in the giant gray area in the middle.

The best open-ended questions use “what” and “how”.

  • “What options might be available to report the slacker?”
  • “How might someone let them know they’re being annoying?”
  • “How does it make you feel, when you’re working your ass off and they’re not getting anything done?”
  • “Oh? How so?”

Open-ended questions are fantastic for behavioral interview questions. Situation, behavior, impact. I do behavioral interviewing at work, and open-ended questions are my bread and butter. Stuff like,

  • “Can you tell me about a time when you made a significant impact on a project?”
  • “Can you tell me about a time when you dealt with a difficult colleague?”
  • “Describe the last time you got handed a project in trouble. How did you carry it over the finish line?”

Treat “why” like a bomb that will, 99 times out of a 100, blow up in your face. It’s really hard to use “why” without putting your counterpart on the defensive. It sets up a power dynamic, because a “why” question is a demand — and if the recipient isn’t comfortable with saying “I don’t know”, a “why” question isn’t going to make them feel very good. Let’s face it. Most “why” questions end up making us feel dumb.

We’ve all been at the receiving end of a “why did you do that?” question. There’s only one place a question like that can go, and it’s not really collaborative. Stick to “what” and “how”. “What was the outcome you were looking for?” or “How did you see that working out in your head?” Those are collaboration questions. Those are “we’re working together” questions. That’s the safe zone.

One of the biggest pitfalls I see people trip into is turning the conversation around and making it about them. It’s called “conversational narcissism” and it sucks when it happens to anybody.

Here’s an example. I’m listening to someone. They’re recounting an experience. Could be good, could be bad, doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter if it has emotional weight or not. The point is, the focus of the conversation is on them. It’s about their experience. This is a great opportunity for me to allow them to share.

Then I go and ruin it. I try to show that I’m listening by telling them about a similar experience that I’ve had. This is really bad. It pulls the focus of the conversation to me. I’m no longer listening to them. I’m busy telling them about my experience.

Here’s the thing that makes it even worse: humans are comparison engines. We can’t help it, we compare things all the time. So by recalling my own memory, I’m comparing my memory, my experience, to theirs. And I can’t help it, I have to make my experience better somehow. Bigger. Bolder. So, not only have I turned the focus of the conversation to me, I’ve now lessened the other person’s experience.

We’ve all had this done to us. We all know what that feels like. It feels like shit.

Use active listening to guide a conversation along in meaningful way. Keep the focus on your counterpart. Create a comfortable, judgment-free zone for them to speak their mind; an empathetic connection with another human being. Another great book on this subject is Mark Goulston’s Just Listen: The Secret To Getting Through To Absolutely Anyone.

People may not remember what you said, but they definitely remember how you made them feel. The goal in your interactions is building the long-term collaboration. The relationship. People remember if you’re difficult. Argumentative. Negative. Taking the focus away from them by trying to one-up them all the time. Every time they see you coming, going through their head is, “Oh, crap, it’s them. They always make me feel so deficient and small.”

We don’t want that. We want “Oh, cool! I like them! Talking to them makes me feel good.”

I write books and software. Opinions held loosely.

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