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10 Effective Steps To Improve Your Listening Skills (2023)

Imagine this: You're sitting across from a team member or colleague.


You're desperate to make a difference in their life.


For them to remember you when they're 80. So they think to themselves, "That leader. THAT leader... made the biggest difference to my life."


You clear your throat and prepare to speak...


What's the most powerful thing you can say?


Nothing.


It's counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best thing you can say is nothing at all.

I've interviewed more than 200 leaders around the world so far for The Leadership Conversations Podcast. There is one piece of advice those leaders have shared with me more than anything else.


Listen.

We all like the idea of listening. But the truth is, great listening is easier said than done. It can be incredibly difficult to resist the urge to speak and offer our thoughts and opinions, especially when we feel passionate about a topic.


It takes practice to be comfortable with silence and to trust that the other person will fill the void with their thoughts. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to be present in the moment.


Then, you're able to truly listen to what the other person is saying.


I believe one strategy is more effective than any other to improve your listening:


The Power of the Pause


What is the power of the pause, you ask? It's the art of shutting up for a moment, giving the other person space to finish their thought.


It's a tactic to help you learn to be present in the conversation. It's like hitting the mute button on your brain for a second, and tuning in to what's being said.


Now, you might be wondering why pausing when listening is important. Well, for starters, it shows that you're engaged in the conversation and genuinely interested in what the other person has to say.


More importantly, it gives the speaker a chance to express themselves fully without feeling rushed or interrupted.


You will be shocked - and I mean shocked - at how often someone continues speaking when you pause and give them time to think.


10 Effective Steps to Improve Your Listening Skills


But how can you implement the power of the pause in your daily life? Well, it's a crucial part of my 10 step approach to improve your listening:


Step 1: Listen like a normal human being


Don't start being all weird and looking around the room or closing your eyes when someone is talking to you. Start by listening like you normally would.


Your cue to practice the power of the pause is when the other person... pauses.


Step 2: When they pause, you pause


You're listening like a normal human being. Then, the person you're talking to pauses.


Your instinct is to jump in with one of 20 thoughts racing around your mind. But you choose not to. Instead, you're going to do this:


Step 3: Start counting in your head


Don't count out loud, that is frowned upon in society. As soon as they pause, start counting in your head. 1... 2... 3... When you start practicing, five seconds will seem like a long time. Start there. But then challenge yourself to end up at 10.


When I'm coaching a leader, I use 15 seconds as my timeframe for pausing. But I'm now finding a lot of people jump back in at 14 or 15 seconds so I'm considering moving it out to 20 seconds. Play with it!


Step 4: Give verbal cues every 5 or 7 seconds


Sitting there in silence for 30 seconds is going to get weird. They might just stand up, look at your strangely and walk off. Part of great listening is being present and showing you're with them.


Verbal cues are great for this. As you count, give a verbal cue every 5 to 7 seconds. "Hmm..." or "Yeah..." or "That's interesting" or a chuckle or nodding your head or looking thoughtfully at the ceiling. Whatever it is, it's your way of acknowledging the other person's thoughts to show them you're considering what they've just said.


Step 5: Repeat their last words back to them


You've paused for 5, 10, 15 or 20 seconds and given verbal cues during your pause. A lot of the time they will have jumped back in and kept speaking. This is the dream! You're now a listening legend. You'll be amazed at how often you don't even have to say anything after your pause because they'll keep going.


However, after a few of these in a row, the person you're listening to will likely reach the end of that tangent. After you've paused for 5, 10, 15 or 20 seconds, if they haven't jumped back in and kept speaking, repeat the last couple of words they said. This is a prompt for them to continue.


"It didn't make sense..." or "You don't know?" or "She just doesn't follow through on deadlines." Whatever they said last, say a couple of those words and then pause again.


Step 6: Pause again


This is a LOT of pausing. True. But we're not trying to be your average Joe listener. We're going for the jugular. We want to listen so well that the person we're with feels incredibly heard.


This second pause isn't as long as the first one. We're just giving them a chance to bounce off the words we've repeated back to them. This prompt often helps them to pick up and keep going.


Step 7: Summarize back what you've heard


I know, I know. "What about my AMAZING advice?" Unfortunately people care much less about our advice than we think they do. They're more likely to have a breakthrough from sharing with you as you deeply listen.


This is why we're not even giving advice or sharing our thoughts yet. At this point, a great listener helps the person speaking by summarizing. Summarizing means to take everything they've said up to this point in the conversation - or from the last milestone in the conversation - and summarize it into a couple of sentences.


We assume people know exactly what they think about things. We assume they know precisely how they feel. It's just not true. When a great listener summarizes back to them, many people will gain clarity around their own thoughts.


Step 8: Sherlock time


At this point, if you've followed the steps you're having success as you listen. People feel heard by you. To take your listening to yet another level, it's Sherlock time.


I speak of course of Sherlock Holmes. The great detective from the stories. Imagine you are Sherlock Holmes.


What are the pieces of information in what this person has shared that are profound 'clues'? Were there words they repeated a bunch of times? Did their body language change dramatically when they mentioned a person?


Was there a point in the conversation where they were headed somewhere. But then they hit a brick wall. What was that brick wall? Why did they stop going there?


Step 9: Ask open-ended questions


Okay Sherlock. You've listened, and paused, and counted, and given verbal cues, and repeated, and paused, and summarized. And still they haven't picked up the ball and started running anywhere with it.


It's time to pick up that ball and throw it back to them. Some of the best open-ended questions include, "Tell me more about..." or "Can you unpack __________ for me?" or "I noticed you tense up when you mentioned _________, what was happening there?"


Or "You mentioned ___________ is affecting your productivity. What else is affecting your productivity?" Or "Is there anything else..." I know some of those aren't open-ended questions. Sorry perfectionists! The point is to use questions that will open up the conversation from here.


As you can see in those examples, use your Sherlock clues as the focus of your question/s. Let's say you pick up on frustration with themselves for missing deadlines. They mention this and grimace and shake their head.


Five minutes in the conversation later, and you've done all the steps and the conversation has stalled. The ball is sitting there on the ground. You might pick it up and throw it back to them by saying, "It seemed like you grimaced and shook your head when you mentioned how you've missed deadlines? Unpack that for me."


See how we've taken a clue and turned it into an open question?


Here's another example. Maybe you're listening to one of your team and they're struggling with another member of your team. In the conversation you've noticed they've mentioned the other team member's tone of voice multiple times.


The tone of voice is your 'clue'. You might ask, "You've mentioned Caden's tone of voice a number of times. How does Caden's tone of voice affect you?"


Once again, we're picking up on a 'clue' in what we've heard. Then we're using that clue to ask a question to throw the ball back to them so they can keep running with it.


At this point it's tempting to ask 20 more questions! Or to move on to Step 10!


Unfortunately, most of the time that's bad listening. Great listeners will throw the ball back and move themselves back to Step 1.


However, there are times when it's appropriate to move to Step 10...


Step 10: Give advice


We made it! After 9 steps and disciplined consistent listening, it's time to give some advice. I just went looking for statistics on how much leaders talk vs listen in one-on-one meetings. I couldn't find anything!


If you know of any statistics please pass them onto me. My gut tells me we spend WAAAAAAAAAAY too much time speaking vs listening in life. And leaders are just as guilty as the rest of society.


I wonder what your current percentage of listening vs speaking would be? When you speak with your partner, family, friends, colleague, boss and employees, how much of the time do you spend listening vs speaking?


If you're anything like me... it's an embarrassing amount of speaking.


I mean, we know we should listen more. It's just... hard?


That's why this 10 step framework is so helpful. If you can make it through the first 9 steps and hold back that amazing advice you've been bursting to share? Then you're way, way, way ahead of the curve.


The clincher is this:


The better you listen, the better your advice.


Have you ever spoken to someone and five minutes in they start giving you advice? Ten minutes later and they're still speaking.


It's happened to me and I immediately lose respect for the person. I also don't take in anything they're telling me. Unless it's an extreme exception where they're an expert and I've positioned myself for their advice.


Even then, to be honest, the best experts I've ever spoken with have listened first.


So there you have it: The most powerful thing a leader can say in a conversation is often nothing at all. Great listening can be challenging, but it is crucial if you want to make a difference in people's lives.


Here's a reminder of the 10 steps you can use in every conversation to improve your listsening skills.


10 Effective Steps to Improve Your Listening Skills

Step 1: Listen like a normal human being

Step 2: When they pause, you pause

Step 3: Start counting in your head

Step 4: Give verbal cues every 5 or 7 seconds

Step 5: Repeat their last words back to them

Step 6: Pause again

Step 7: Summarize back what you've heard

Step 8: Sherlock time

Step 9: Ask open-ended questions

Step 10: Give advice


Four Tips to Help Your People Feel Heard

Leadership is hard work. I'm so careful now to look at a leader and flippantly think, "why are they doing things like that? If it was me, I would ..." I'm honestly amazed at the burdens some leaders carry! It's incredible.


One thing I found incredibly challenging as a leader was sitting down with people and listening in such a way that they walked away feeling heard. After a lot of trial and error and wisdom from people around me, I'd love to share four tips that I think are crucial in helping your people feel heard.

1. People don't feel heard when you understand...


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