The most important interpersonal skill you need

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If you happen to be a military person, government functionary, or civilian factory worker in North Korea, you might want to invest in a pen and small notebook.

North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, often visits military installations, government buildings, factories, and other locales in his cloistered country.

In most photos of these visits, you’ll notice people around Chairman Kim clutching and writing in little notebooks. North Koreans are led to believe that the Kim dynasty leaders are essentially infallible. Accordingly, whenever Chairman Kim visits and offers advice, they do more than listen. They write everything down.

The obedient note-taking telegraphs respect, and shows that they are paying close attention. In a country where people disappear all the time, it’s probably wise not to upset Chairman Kim.

The North Korean notetakers may be acting out of self-preservation, but their actions demonstrate an important interpersonal skill. A skill that the rest of us should practice and improve if we want to have a better life.

My full attention

In the romantic comedy “As Good As It Gets” Helen Hunt plays Carol, a struggling single mother who befriends an obsessive-compulsive writer named Melvin (Jack Nicholson) and Melvin’s neighbor, Simon (Greg Kinnear).

In a poignant scene, Carol is driving Simon and Melvin on a road trip. Simon begins to share with Carol an emotional story about his childhood.

Carol tells Simon to wait as she pulls the car over to park and give him her “full attention.” After that, she listens intently to Simon’s heartfelt story.

So often we miss opportunities to give our full attention. Perhaps we’re on the couch watching TV when our spouse comes home from work. We might ask, “How was your day, honey?” while remaining glued to the television.

Illustrations by John P. Weiss

Or maybe we’re immersed in social media when our kid comes into the room after school. Do we shut off Facebook, turn to face our child and say, “Tell me about your day, I want to give you my full attention.”

Even when we think we’re giving others our full attention, we’re often not. We hear bits and pieces, looking for the gist of what another has to say, as we arrange our thoughts and responses.

The most important interpersonal skill you need is the art of listening. Learning how to improve this skill will serve you well for the rest of your life.

There is nothing so annoying

To become a better listener, you have to do an honest self-assessment. Consider your interactions with others. Do you listen intently, or are you busy formulating brilliant responses and interrupting?

The inestimable Mark Twain observed:

“There is nothing so annoying as having two people talking when you’re busy interrupting.”

The next thing you need to do is get proactive. Make the choice each day to practice better listening. Here are five tips that can help.

Eye contact

Get in the habit of maintaining eye contact when someone is speaking to you. They say eyes are portals to the soul. Sometimes a person’s eyes and physical expressions tell you more than their words. But to see that, you have to put your smartphone away and look at them.

Nodding

Next to eye contact, nodding affirmatively lets the person know that you’re paying attention. The occasional “uh-huh,” or single words like, “sure,” or “yeah,” show them you’re following along.

Ask questions

You don’t want to pepper someone with endless questions when they are talking. But asking key questions, here and there, shows you’re listening and paying attention.

Don’t interrupt

This is huge because most people interrupt. They finish other people’s sentences, interject their thoughts, play the one-upmanship game, compete, debate, and destroy any chance of deeper understanding.

A lot of people interrupt when they don’t agree with what someone is saying. This puts the other person immediately on the defensive. They won’t feel heard or understood. Trust is destroyed. And they’ll become less open to what you have to say.

Let people finish their sentences and thoughts. Even better, once they stop talking, don’t dive right in with a response. Nod affirmatively, giving yourself time to digest what they said.

Paraphrase/Summarize

Taking the time to briefly repeat back what someone has told you is a hallmark of active listening. The key is to not introduce judgments or new ideas. Simply restate what they said.

People long to be understood. Paraphrasing or summarizing what they just told you validates that they were heard. It also allows for correction, in the event you misunderstood.

The intent to reply

Becoming a better listener means changing our mindset. We often view listening as a passive behavior. Something requiring little energy.

An article about listening in Zapier.com notes:

How many times have you walked into a meeting or conference and thought, “Oh good, I can relax now because I only have to listen?” Or maybe someone thanked you for letting them talk, and you responded with something like “No problem, all I did was listen.”

I know I’ve done that many times. Heck, there were some meetings where I found myself doodling or nearly dozing off! The Zapier.com article adds:

We mistake listening as easy because it looks passive and instinctive, but in reality it’s hard work. Really listening (and not just appearing to listen) requires intense concentration and a good deal of mental energy.

According to the late author Stephen R. Covey, most people seek first to be understood. That’s why they tend to interrupt or even hijack the conversation, instead of listening closely.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” — Stephen R. Covey

Miss the meaning entirely

The human brain can think three to four times faster than people can speak. So we tend to anticipate the gist of what others are saying, call up counterpoints, or even let our minds wander.

“You want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation, or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely.” -Stephen R. Covey

Our brains tend to focus on connections and relationships between things more than specific bits of information. As a result, we tend to lose focus when listening and get lost in our complex maze of feelings and thoughts.

Our egos tend to destroy good listening. We love to be right and show others how informed or smart we are. More often than not, all we’re doing is catering to our ego or insecurities.

“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.” — Doug Larson

We try to one-up the other person with a better story to top theirs. Or we interrupt to steer the conversation back to ourselves. Such insecure behavior invalidates what the other has to say, and makes us look like a jerk.

Conversely, when we make eye contact, nod in agreement, and listen intently without interruption, we build rapport and trust. For this reason, great listeners are often viewed as great conversationalists.

Wait to hear the answer

Why is good listening the most important interpersonal skill you need? Because good listening improves relationships.

Your spouse will love that you give your undivided attention. Your kids will feel valued because you can summarize what they just said, validating their feelings and desire to be understood.

Your friends and coworkers will rave about you because you’re one of the few who listens to them.

“Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer.” — Ed Cunningham

Good listening builds trust, reduces misunderstandings, helps you learn more, and understand people better. The more you do it, the better you get. You’ll start to pick up on nuances of meaning, and connect more deeply with others.

We don’t have to emulate our North Korean friends with obedient note-taking, but we should steal a page from Helen Hunt’s character in As Good As It Gets.

By listening intently and giving others our undivided attention, we will stand out from the crowd of interrupters and blabbers. We will deepen our relationships, gain wisdom, and live a better life.

Maybe that’s why God gave us two ears and only one mouth? So we’ll listen twice as much as we speak.

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint, and write about life. Get on my free email list here for the latest essays and artwork.