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Active Listening: The Skill of Skills

Active listening isn't waiting for the other person to shut up so you can talk. It's focused empathy. Focused in that your counterpart has your undivided attention. You have to put away your phone, ignore any distractions in the background, stop looking at every new person who walks by, and put both your eyes on the person in front of you. Make them feel like they're the only person in the room. The empathy part comes from suspending your ego long enough to put yourself in the other person's shoes. When someone says something you have an opinion about, you don't offer it up. You don't pass judgment. You just let them talk. Allow them to speak without interruption. When we do speak, we do one of three things. Mirror, label, or ask a question. That's it. Super simple, and when used together you'll make more meaningful connections with people.

Mirroring Mirroring is just repeating the critical words of what your counterpart just said. 1-3 words, sometimes more, but not much more. It's not the same as paraphrasing. It's different. Paraphrasing is a summary. Mirroring is using your counterparts words. Just a few of them. Form it in a question. They'll unconsciously accept that you're listening and keep going. Here's an example: "She was driving me nuts with her incessant tapping!" "Her tapping drove you nuts?" "Yeah, and she has this really annoying laugh. You'd hate it." "Annoying laugh, huh?" "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?" "Videos at work?" …and so on. By the way, this works on everyone. I know how this works and it works on me. I can't help it. If you use mirroring on me, I'll start babbling. Labeling 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 judgment. 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 is critical. It's important no matter what, but it's 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."

That's the label. Then you wait. This is important. Wait. Let them speak next. Give them time to absorb your words. 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. You can learn more about labeling in Chris Voss's 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 they reply with "That's right!" or "Exactly!" Ask a Question The third thing is ask a question. Not any old question. An open-ended question. The open-ended question invites your counterpart to say what they really think about something. We love talking about what we think. Stay away from anything that can be answered with a simple yes or no. A yes or no question is short and to the point. A yes or no question has sharp edges. 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 sound accusatory or otherwise put your counterpart on the defensive. 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's a good outcome for you here?" - "How did that make you feel?" - "How did that work out?" - "What was your goal?" "When" 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, "Tell me about a time when you made a significant impact on a project." Treat "why" like a bomb that will, 99 times out of a 100, go off in your face. It's really, 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 you're not comfortable with saying "I don't know", a "why" question isn't going to make you 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 constructive. Stick to "what" and "how". "What was your goal?" 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. Pro Tip: Don't make it about you 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. Here's an example. I'm listening to somebody. 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. This is a great opportunity for me to allow them to share. But then I go and ruin it. I try to show that I'm listening by telling 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 thing. 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. This is a very common pattern. Could be a reason why active listening is so hard to come by. When you understand this pattern, you will see it everywhere. Every time I see this, I view it as a lost opportunity for whoever's face-planted into that trap. I want to run up to the person and wave in their face and say "stop! you're ruining the moment" but that wouldn't produce a very good outcome for me. Recap Active listening is what you use to guide a conversation along. It keeps the focus on your counterpart. It creates a comfortable, judgment-free zone for them to speak their mind; an empathic connection with another human being. Active listening is how you find out what's really going on with someone. It's how you get to the bottom of problems. You can also use it to persuade, coach, or just get to know people. It's a fantastic tool in your soft skills toolbox. Use it to find out what your boss/significant other/friend/random person in the grocery line really wants and how you can help them. Another great book on the subject is Mark Goulston's Just Listen: The Secret To Getting Through Absolutely Anyone. People may not remember what you said, but they definitely remember how you made them feel. The goal in just about all of our 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, "Oh, crap, it's that person" is going through their head. We don't want that. We want "Oh, cool! I like them. Talking to them makes me feel good."

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