Ten Tips for Listening

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By Raj Pandya, Director, Thriving Earth Exchange

One of the most important skills in community science is listening. After all, the whole goal of community science is to understand how science can be used in ways that advance community priorities and shared values. Hard to do that if you don’t know what those priorities are and how values intersect.  Success in community science depends on respecting and leveraging everyone’s skills and perspectives.   Hard to know what those skills are, or show them any respect, if you don’t know how to listen for them.

Unfortunately, few of us have had the chance to be formally trained in listening. Even in workshops on science communication, the focus is still on delivering our message about science. When we do think about knowing the audience, is usually so that we can frame our message in the ways that an audience will hear. Good listening, though, shouldn’t just be a prelude to talking.

So, in the absence of formal instruction, how can we develop good listening skills? Honestly, it’s the same way you get to Carnegie Hall. But how, exactly, to practice? This blog shares some ideas, coming from our experience with Thriving Earth Exchange projects and from watching people who listen well. Fully appreciating the irony of a didactic exposition about listening, here are 10 tips for listening well.

  1. Be present. You can’t listen well if you are thinking about work, checking your phone, going through your to-do list, wondering who else is at the event, or even thinking about how to get what you want out of the conversation. Focus on what is being said, how it is being said, how the person who is saying it looks and feels. If you find your mind wandering, don’t beat yourself up (listening isn’t easy, after all). Just bring yourself back to the conversation.
  2. Be curious. Cultivate curiosity about the person you are with. Who are they? What do they care about? What are they trying to do in the world? What do they know and how did they learn it? How did they end up where they are? If you hear something you disagree with or something that rubs you the wrong way, use that as a prompt for more listening.
  3. Let go of ego. A key attribute of good listening is that it isn’t about you. You don’t need to be smart, witty, wise or funny. Good listening means letting go of trying to make an impression. For introverts, listening can be a comfortable place because it takes you out of the spotlight and relieves some of the pressure to be “on.”
  4. Listen for values. I learned about levels of listening in a leadership class almost a decade ago and have been using it ever since. Level 1 listening is listening for your turn to speak. “You went to band camp. Me too. This one time, at band camp…” Level 2 listening is listening to content, for facts. “So, you went to band camp when you were in eighth grade?” Level 3 listening, the most productive kind, is listening for values. “Sounds like band camp was where you learned how to do things yourself.” You can be at level three by listening for clues about what people care about, what they admire, and what they aspire to. If you’re not finding those clues in what they’re saying, just ask.
  5. You probably hear this, but good listening includes talking—that is, saying back what you’ve heard in your own words. This builds trust, shows empathy and encourages people to open up further. If you restate back in terms of values, too, you can check on whether you got those values right. There are important side benefits of restating, too. While the goal of listening is not to show how smart you are (see tip #3), you’ll be surprised at how often people look at you and say “that is really insightful” or “what a good idea” after you restate what they say.
  6. Suspend judgement. A good listener isn’t deciding if what the person said is right or wrong, but rather trying to see the world from inside the other person’s skin. If you’re judging, you are suspending curiosity, distracting yourself from the moment and letting your own ego get in the way of listening. If you find yourself judging, try to turn it into a question—What makes you say that?—and then focus on the answer.
  7. Allow silence. Negotiators and interrogators use uncomfortable silence to make people talk. One of my friends lowered the price on a used car by $500 just by being quiet after the counteroffer. You can also use silence—without the bright lights or stony stare—to create a welcoming space for someone to talk. Pause, and count to seven in your head (it’s an old teaching trick). Many times, you won’t make it to seven before the person starts to elaborate on what they just said.
  8. Ask powerful questions. Powerful questions are open-ended questions that ask people to think more deeply. Questions that require more than just facts and get at why those facts are relevant. Why do you think you feel that way? What do you think that means? How did you come to think that? Where did you learn that?
  9. Ask about options. This is especially good when you are listening to someone dealing with a problem. Most people have good ideas about what might work but just need time and space to sort it out. A simple thing to ask is, “What are some approaches you might take?” Instead of focusing on what someone should do, strive to make it a little easier for the person to think through the options. Embedded in this is the notion that listening is never, never, never trying to solve someone’s problem or offer advice—it’s understanding the world from that person’s point of view.
  10. Embrace a little discomfort. For most of us, listening intentionally and deeply is a new skill. At first, it can feel forced or make you feel self-conscious, like you’re mimicking a therapist or a bad talk show host. That is okay—all new things feel awkward the first few times. Give it a chance. With practice, it will get comfortable and you’ll find ways to listen that feel authentic. You’ll develop your own stock of natural ways to ask powerful questions and keep the conversation going.

Thriving Earth Exchange just enabled comments on its blogs. That means I can end this blog on listening by asking you for your tips and strategies on listening. So, please tell me more!

Zack Valdez editor

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St. John Vuetilovoni

Thanks for sharing Raj. I found the list of tips you shared really insightful, especially, the levels of listening in which I was able to identify myself currently at Level 1. I have a work trip coming up where I will be meeting lots of people, your blog is timely and has inspired me to try these 🙂