Are you blocking conversation when you think you’re listening?

Your boss wants you to listen attentively (not just when they speak). Good listening is critical for building trust, within a team and without. So whether it’s with your boss, a colleague, a customer, partner or vendor, take the cotton out of your ears!

If we were playing baseball, good listening would be first base. To hit a home run, first you need to listen, because there’s no home-run that doesn’t pass through first-base and then remember, act, and follow through. Your listening skills are the foundation for the home run.

How hard could it be? Well, in my experience, easy or hard, good listeners are exceedingly rare. That makes this one of the best ways for you to stand out. Here’s how to polish your listening skills:

  1. Give your full attention to the speaker. Stay focused – think about what’s being said. You think many times faster than most people speak, so use the extra time to understand and organize what you are hearing.
  2. Don’t interrupt – especially if you are being attacked or there is an emotional charge in the speaker. If you interrupt, the speaker will not ‘feel heard’ and will just repeat again and again.
  3. Make eye contact
  4. Use good body language – face the person, uncross your arms and legs, lean slightly forward and avoid fidgeting with hands or feet.
  5. Reflect back on what you’ve heard – paraphrase like this: “So you’re saying that…” and then ask if you got it right: “Have I got it?”
  6. Encourage the speaker to tell more – say: “Oh?” and then stay quiet. Learn to accept and appreciate a little bit of silence in a conversation even if it’s uncomfortable for you at first.
  7. Avoid conversation blockers. Here are 7 different ways of taking the wind out of someone else’s sail. They invalidate the feelings of the person speaking and will make sure the speaker doesn’t feel heard. These are trust breakers:
    • Opinion giving – ex: “Don’t worry about him, he wastes everyone’s time and no one pays attention to what he says, trust me.”
    • Criticizing/judging – ex: “You’re still working on that? You’re such a perfectionist! I don’t see how you’ll ever get anything done at that pace.”
    • Preaching – ex: “You shouldn’t let anything distract you – you should really manage your time better.”
    • Fixing – ex: “You tell him to mind his own business. If he doesn’t, I’ll have a talk with him.”
    • Comparing – ex: “You did what? This never happened with John, he never made any mistakes.”
    • Denial – ex: “I know you don’t mean that. You couldn’t possibly feel that way.”
    • Change the focus to yourself – ex: “That’s great! I remember when I won the spelling bee in second grade and…”

Can you see that there are endless ways to screw up as a listener? Conversation blocking is really much easier and more natural for most people than good listening is. How many times have you been distracted in a restaurant or an airplane by someone talking too loudly who won’t let his conversation partner say three words? That’s human nature, but we can do better.

Best advice for changing your listening habits?

  1. Understand attentive listening is a precious gift you can give at any moment, a gift that will enrich your relationships and your life.
  2. Assume you are not the smartest person in the room and try to learn something new from everyone you meet.

Are you a parent? There is a great book for teaching listening skills to your kids: Peaceful Parents, Peaceful Kids by Naomi Drew.  Highly recommended.

Get the ebook! If you liked what you read here, and think you may want to refer back to this guide later, grab the Kindle version – we’re hoping you’ll thank us with a five-star review on Amazon if you found this material helpful. The ebook also includes our job search guide.

For comprehensive advice on the entire job search process, read our complete guide to landing a job at a great company or visit our career advice hub.

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  • I consider myself to be someone who’s knowledgeable about how to be an excellent employee, but I still make mistakes. Just today, one of my supervisors was handing off a small project to me at work. He was standing in front of me and talking, and I tried to interrupt him. After I interrupted a second time, I realized what I was doing and shut my mouth; this is basic stuff, but it can still be forgotten. Because I stopped trying to break into the conversation, I was given the project and now have a meeting scheduled tomorrow morning to go over it into further detail. It’s incredibly important to do this: always be mindful of who is communicating.

  • This article is an eye-opener…I’ve done all of those things under the guise of “understanding” the speaker, for years. I realize now that I’ve been interjecting controlling and steering speech instead of listening. No wonder I exasperate my grown sons!

  • I’ve realized that being a good listener is important in any conversation, whether I’m talking to my boss, a customer, coworker, peer, significant other, or friend. Communicating well is impossible if you can’t listen well.

    At my university’s Writing Center, I help many students with their writing. Each tutoring session lasts 30 minutes to an hour, the majority of which is a conversation. I ask students what they want to work on and what they feel they need the most help with. While I try to understand students needs’, I am always trying to improve my listening skills. I can’t lose focus in the middle of our session, or else I won’t be doing my best to help the student. I need to make sure I’m engaged in the conversation, making eye contact and using welcoming body language to make the student feel comfortable.

    I found that the most helpful advice from this article is “assume you are not the smartest person in the room and try to learn something new from everyone you meet.” Even though as a tutor, the students are looking at me for advice, I let the students know that I’m not the expert. I ask students questions about what they are writing about and why they chose their topic, and that usually gets them talking. I love hearing the stories students tell about their topic. After every single tutoring session, I leave knowing something I didn’t know before.

  • I find alot of supervisors in my last few jobs have horrible communication skills. I find it strange because all my other supervisors had great communication skills. I did not really realize this at the time but certainly do now. I listen to these supervisors and make a point not to say much. They are very confrontational. I would think maybe it was me. But, everyone else says no that it is not me. I even had an interview just recently where I was complimentedited for listening. I don’t if I got the job yet. I hope so because about all I say at work is will do or repeat things to my supervisor that she said to avoid any conflicts. I say good morning too.

  • I have always tried my hardest to be a good listener. I’ve found that it’s something that employers really look for. I use the majority of the tips that are in this article and it has always helped me be someone that my employers trust to get things done correctly and take charge of projects.

  • This interesting.

    A lot of the time, I am seen as reserved and very observing and for some reason, I used to think that I was a pretty good listener; that in fact, if there was something I did best, it was listening. But this summer, I wen to a conference and our assigned teams were giving feedback. About 3 or 4 (out of 10) people told me to work on listening yet said I make good observations. I used to think they went hand in hand and always wondered what I was doing wrong.

    Reading this article, I realize there are three things I sometimes do when I’m trying to help.

    1. In conversations in recent months (although not with my boss), I usually think of a new topic to bring up an do not allow the silence to fester and then bask in it. If I do not do that, I end the conversation instead. I don’t know what to think about that. Maybe its because, lately, my life has been in a hurry.
    2. I tend to ‘preach’ in conversations as a way of giving good advise and tips that I have found helpful. This leads to my next point.
    3. I sometimes change the focus to myself, especially when I’m ‘preaching’ using myself (in stead of someone else) as an example in similar situations.

    Hmmn. I think this might be because another thing I have been appreciated for was good advice and as someone whose thoughts are continuously flitting through my head and someone who loves to help, I almost always try to do just that when I feel necessary. I think I’m realizing that I need a balance. I seem reserved until I have something to say (which is once in a while).
    (While making these observations about myself, I’m still ruminating on my discoveries.)

  • I tend to block the conversation and I do not mean to do it intentionally, it just happens and I need to work on that area. The last interview I had I heard her convo, but my mind was somewhere else.

  • Listening attentively is an extremely important skill, and I find that living in a society where instant gratification is the norm, sometimes we aren’t the best listeners because we would rather the person get straight to the point, or we would rather give our opinion than listen to others. Strong leaders who listen attentively facilitate open communication in their work environments which encourages better collaboration and ultimately effectiveness.

    The tips for “polishing your listening skills” described in this guide are excellent and have given me better insight into what I need to do better among my co workers and even with my own students. Reflecting back and encouraging the speaker are tips I am going to immediately begin trying to implement in my own day-to-day operations. These tips will definitely help me be a more active listener, and an overall better leader.

  • “Give everyone your ear, but few your words.” This is a somewhat translated quote from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. After reading this< I thought of how useful listening to others is, especially when you are trying to learn about different things. If you are always talking and interrupting others just to talk and say your opinion, you will never be able to expand outside of yourself. By listening to others, you are able to expand upon what you already know as well as learn new things that you may have never known before.

    On my robotics team this was a very important skill indeed. When you are collaborating with many others to concoct a solution to a problem, every idea that is available can possibly end up on the final product. But, if someone commands the whole design process, no new ideas that could actually be better and more efficient, can be voiced.

    Also, listening is very beneficial for example when conflict happens. I've known friends who were fighting, but because they didn't sit down and listen to each other speak on why they were mad, neither could resolve the conflict quickly.

    Just this summer I participated in a small class called inter-group relations and it was about the differences between people and how one should go about working and acting in a group where everyone is different. Listening was definitely a key factor in whether or not you would learn anything in that class because if you weren't listening to someone else in the class speak, then you were missing out on a learning experience. Specifically, you were missing out on learning about different cultures, religions, social classes and economic status', and even gender, race, and sexual orientation. Listening to all the other student's stories about where they came from and their experiences concerning various opportunities they had and why they were able to obtain those while others didn't helped me to see the opportunities I've had that I take for guaranteed. Listening thus is a skill one must have if they wish to succeed within a global environment.

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