I was lucky recently to have attended a breakfast with some women from the Chicago chapter of X Chrome Collective. We started our day talking about communication, how to be present for our important people, and the ways we can improve how we communicate in all areas of our lives.
We’re constantly communicating so much more than we even realize. There’s the obvious — any time we talk to people, text them, and the images we put on social media — and then the less obvious — our body language, the clothes we wear, and the style we choose. We are communicating whether we want to or not.
The prospect of making sure you are always sending the right messages (the messages we want to put in the world) can be daunting, and sometimes the non-verbal messages we intend to put down are very different than what’s picked up by others because we all bring different perspectives to every interaction.
Because of the different perspectives that other people bring to their interactions with you, it can be hard to be on the same page, and so much of communication is about getting on the same page. There are ways to make it easier (though not easy) to get on the same page with someone with whom you’ll be consistently working, especially if you put the effort in and are intentional about it. But we are often communicating with people with whom we have no common frame of reference or shared communication styles, and when this is the case, active listening is a powerful tool for checking our understanding and seeing if we’ve gotten on the same page or are even in the same book.
What is active listening? It’s a communication style with a few extra steps that ensures the person you’re listening to feels heard and supported, and most importantly that you have taken away what they actually meant.
This is the definition of being on the same page. Being an active listener is important because sometimes even if we are technically listening, we’re not really hearing, and we don’t end up taking away what the speaker intended.
In fact, this happens a lot. A LOT. So, when the conversation is really important, or if you just want to make sure you’ve understood what someone you are speaking with meant, use these techniques:
- Establish rapport and build trust
Establish rapport and create a connection with the person with whom you’re speaking. Making a connection can be easy; you can authentically compliment your counterpart or just indicate your interest in what the speaker is saying. Show interest in who they are, where they are from, or where they parked. Most important is that you make your interest and focus on their message clear.
- Demonstrate curiosity and interest
Ask a specific question that shows you’re fully engaged by the topic. Let them know through your words (“I’m really interested in this” or “I didn’t know that”) and your body language (leaning in, nodding) and your verbalizations (“a-huh” “hmm”) that you are fully engaged by the conversation.
- Show you are tracking
Repeat back the last few words someone has said to you to let them know you are tracking. This is a great way to (a) show that you’ve actually been listening, (b) that you at least understand their words. The benefit is that by doing this you actually are listening more closely.
- Use nonverbal cues and brief affirmations to show understanding and openness
Do not cross your arms or lean back in your chair. Try not to fidget. Lean forward from time to time, especially when they are making an important point. Keep your eyes forward, and nod. Without interrupting, use affirmations like, “I see,” “I understand,” “Mhm,” and “yes.”
- Ask clarifying and open-ended questions
By asking questions you indicate that you are interested in what they have said. By asking open-ended questions you let them know that you’re interested in their point of view and are thinking critically about their point, not just showing off what you already know. Following up to try and gather more information shows that you’re invested.
If you are not certain about anything they’ve said, or even why they think what they think, it’s important to ask a clarifying question. Most of us often want to avoid making it seem like we don’t understand, or that we don’t understand a particular reference that someone we are speaking with makes, and this is the cause of a lot of entirely avoidable confusion. When we are willing to show that we don’t know, or that we haven’t tracked perfectly with a conversation, we create the chance to get on the same page.
To do this really well, and show that the speaker really has your attention, pause and show the speaker that you are not only listening but thinking about what they’ve had to say. Do not jump right in with your question. Allow just a bit of silence. In addition to making them feel like their message is sinking in, the speaker will often elaborate as a way to fill the silence, allowing you to can gather even more information.
- Wait to share your opinion
Be sure that your conversation partner has said everything they need to before you give your opinion. Don’t jump in before they are ready. We are often too quick to jump in and share our perspective because we want to show that we can relate, but if we do it too soon and cut them off, you can easily throw away the rapport and good will we’ve just built.
- Summarize to check understanding
By far the most important active listening technique is to summarize what you’ve heard. This is like a double-check that, yep, we’re both on page 36 and now can go to page 37. It’s interesting how often what we’ve heard and taken away from a conversation strays from what the speaker meant and this comes back to and is often the result of the individual perspectives and preconceived ideas we bring to each interaction. Summarizing what we heard gives the speaker the opportunity to revise the message if we got it wrong.
Communication is something we can all improve on, not because we’re all bad communicators, but because we all approach most interactions like it’s a no-brainer; we feel like, “We got this.” We think all we have to do is hear the words. But there’s actually a lot more to it than just hearing the words. Being a good listener means listening for what the speaker means, not just what they say.