Yogi Berra said, "You can see a lot by just looking." Similarly, you can hear a lot by just listening. If there is one skill that will make you better at almost everything, it’s listening. Want to build a better relationship with a client or colleague? Listen. Want to be a better husband or wife? Listen. Here are four keys to better listening skills.
Be genuinely interested. I was seated at a luncheon recently across from a business consultant. He seemed far more interested in his iPhone than me. When I tried to strike up a conversation with him, I actually saw him sigh as he put down his phone. If there were a thought balloon over his head it would have said, "OK. I guess I’ll chat with this guy even if I don’t want to." There are no tips that will help you if you aren’t actually interested in the other person. The author Truman Capote was said to have been interested even in "boring" people. When stuck in a conversation with a bore, he would try to discover what makes the person so boring. That’s the attitude of a great listener.
Ask good questions. Famed interviewer Larry King said, "The absolute best question in the whole world is ‘Why?’ " Why did you choose to become a lawyer? Why does your business want to merge with a competitor? Why do have I have to hold the club this way? Why do you go by Joey instead of Joe? Why do you enjoy shopping? "Why" makes people think and reflect. It shows a depth of interest and requires a deeper answer. Of course, there are many great questions that don’t start with "why." But my experience has been that the best questions involve asking for an explanation or an opinion.
Be patient. It’s amazing what good stuff you can hear if you are willing to wait for it. I met a corporate psychologist at a cocktail party. He told me that his job was to screen high-level job candidates for major corporations to ensure that they’re not secretly racist. "How can you tell if someone is a secret racist?" I asked. He explained that he asks the subject to talk about himself and his life. Over the course of long interviews (the interviews can last days) a pattern of racism will emerge. Similarly, when I was a newspaper reporter I would remind interview subjects that I’m going to put everything they say in the newspaper and that nothing would be off the record. "So please don’t tell me anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing in the newspaper," I added. And then I would ask questions and listen. My goal would be to make the interview last as long as possible. And before long, people would start telling personal stuff. I received many angry phone calls from interviewees who said to me, "But I didn’t think you were really going to put all that in the paper."
Have a good listening face. I have often received feedback that when I listen I have an intimidating look. I’m not trying to be intimidating. But my "relaxed face" seems bored. By contrast, my wife’s "relaxed face" seems fascinated. It has the slightest smile and makes you want to talk more. So, I have worked on my listening face, trying to imitate my wife. I’ve actually sat in front of a mirror and practiced different expressions. It sounds silly, I suppose. But learning to listen is important to me.