The vast majority of people, about 90% of them, are considered poor listeners. The remaining 10% are pretty special. Think about it. You can probably come up with only 2 or 3 people in your life who would qualify as good listeners.
These people are special because they make you feel special. As a result, you like and trust them.
Trust and liking are two of the most powerful intoxicants in persuasion. In fact, research shows that good listeners are perceived to be better leaders, generate more trust, increase creativity in teams, and make people less anxious. So, if you want to be someone who commands trust, is liked, and has influence, you might want to brush up on your listening skills.
Most of us think listening is that thing we pretend to do when the other person is talking and we’re waiting to cut in. But effective listening is a very active skill, with clear visual and even vocal elements.
Elements of Visual Listening
- Eye contact is essential to effective listening. It is the ultimate visual signal to the speaker that what they are saying is important. In one-on-one situations, maintain eye contact for several seconds, up to ten or even fifteen depending on the moment, then look away for a beat or two.
- When listening, it is important that your body sends the message to the speaker that they are in control. Use a posture that shows engagement but not dominance. It is OK to sit back and look away in thought from time to time, but only to show that you are absorbing and considering the message closely. Don’t spend all of your time in aloof reflection. Lean in. Tilt your head and shoulders toward the speaker. But don’t puff out your chest and crowd them out.
- Talking to someone with a stone face is difficult. Speakers want to know that what they are saying is finding an audience. Match your facial expression to the mood of the message. Smile a lot, if it is appropriate.
- Identify the message the speaker is sending with their own body. Are they animated and open? Are they somber and reflective? Mirror them to the extent it is reasonable to do so. A good default guideline is to keep your body as open as possible, to show the other person that you are confident and welcoming. However, if they are nervous and closed off, you might want to strike a more passive pose with your body language, to show the speaker that they can identify with you.
- This is one of my favorites. In professional contexts, consider asking permission to take notes. Pull out a pad and pencil or a tablet. If you are using an electronic device, do everything possible to show the speaker that you are actually taking notes, not just pretending. Taking notes sends a message that you are focused and engaged. One unexpected bonus is that if you are in a tense meeting, or if the speaker is agitated or critical, your notetaking will remind them that they need to be careful about what they say.
Elements of Vocal Listening
- That VAST majority of your time should be spent in silence. Do not cut off the speaker. Do not one-up the speaker while pretending to sympathize with them. Let them finish a complete thought.
- Small expressions like “mm-hm,” “yeah,” “really?” “are you serious?” “excellent,” are great ways to remind the speaker that you are present and focused. But do not overuse these verbal signals. Deployed too frequently, they send the message that you are rushing the speaker to finish.
Paraphrases and Check-ins
- If the speaker is sharing a complex or sensitive message, it is often helpful for the listener to gently cut in and restate or rephrase part of the message to confirm its meaning and/or show sympathy and engagement. It may be helpful to use an apologetic, permission-seeking question, such as, “Sorry, but can I just clarify?” Otherwise, you can find ways to provide very brief rephrases that do not disrupt the flow of conversation. For instance, “Oh, yeah, they tried to upsell you, and you got turned off. That sucks.”
Prompts and Questions
- Asking questions is its own special art, and we’ll cover it in a later blog. For now, just beware that people love to answer on-topic questions. Ask the speaker to clarify complex points; ask the speaker to elaborate on interesting topics; if appropriate, ask challenging questions to check the speaker’s reasoning. Just do so in a spirit of support.
The irony is that we tend to think we can demonstrate how smart, powerful, and in control we are by what we tell people, when in fact we are often more likely to demonstrate these qualities when we stop and listen effectively.
In addition to the research-backed benefits I cited above, good listeners who ask good questions come off as more confident, more creative, more brave, more intelligent, and even more fun.
Ben Crosby is a professor of rhetoric and a communication skills consultant. He teaches courses in public speaking and presenting, argumentation and debate, technical and professional communication, persuasion and selling, and the history of rhetoric.
His work is regularly published in his field’s top academic journals and conferences. He is also the author of Presentations as Performance: A Professional’s Guide to Better Speaking.
Ben’s areas of expertise are Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Argumentation, Sales Training, and Professional Writing.
In his free time, he spends time with his wife, Rebecca, their four kids, and their cat, Arza. He is an avid Utah Jazz fan.