The art of listening begins with learning to keep quiet. When we feel heard in a conversation, we feel closer to the person on the other side of the table. But in our rush to be a part of the conversation, we may start to cut off people with our brilliant contribution, eager to finish the other person’s sentence.
If you have a bad habit of rushing ahead and interrupting the flow of a conversation, consider the advice of psychologist Richard Carlson. Before you respond in a conversation, he advised in his book, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuf … and It’s All Small Stuff,” to take a breath. “Not an enormous, loud, obvious breath that screams out ‘I am trying a new technique for better listening!’ ” he wrote, according to Psychology Today. “No, just a normal, simple, ordinary breath. That’s it. The whole technique, right there.”
Try breathing before you speak
Do not suck the breath into your lungs; a simple breath-long inhale and exhale is all you may need to give a conversation the space it needs so that both speakers feel heard. This may sound like simple advice, but psychologist Kenneth E. Miller, who uses this advice in his own practice with therapy clients, finds that it can be enormously useful.
“The small bit of silence allows them to explore a bit more, to formulate their thoughts, to reflect further on what they are thinking or feeling,” Miller writes. “In our everyday lives, most of us are not used to having this moment of space to relax and think about what we really want to say, what we are feeling, and what we might — or might not — want to share.”
Instead of thinking about what you want to say, this breath-long space gives a speaker the chance to listen to what the other person is saying and not saying. You can pay more attention to body language and tone. This literal breather may even be enough time to let us know that we should nod and stay silent with the emotions involved. Maybe it would be best to let our partner finish that thought, maybe we should not be so quick to share our own story about a vacation when a colleague is just starting to share theirs.
After you master the art of the conversation-breather, then you can level up to asking thoughtful questions about what is being said. You can learn to ask questions that gently challenge assumptions, or prod the speaker into a moment of insight. One analysis of 3,492 people in a management program found that the best listeners knew how to build upon what was already said with these questions. Good listeners do not just mmm-hmm, they make concrete suggestions. That’s how a one-way lecture becomes a two-way dialogue. But first, you must learn to let the other person get their words out.