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The Power of Active Listening: Strategies for Effective Communication

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Full transcript 

This video is a an excerpt from my upcoming course on building rapport, going beyond small talk with advanced communication skills.

In this video, we’re going to talk about the power of active listening, which is a strategy for really effective communication. Being able to listen powerfully is about half of the recipe for building rapport. If you can’t do this right, you cannot connect deeply with people. They have to feel heard by you, have to feel understood or at least feel that you’re trying. So if you get this, right, that’s half your work done. And this is the bit where you’re quiet.

There are three main mistakes that people make while listening that ruins the chance of building rapport with someone, so I’m going to cover those now.

The first is waiting to speak. And what this means is that during the time that they’ve been speaking, you’ve already decided on what it is you’d like to say next, you’re already waiting for your turn, everything about your body language will express this to the person, or at the very least, even if you’re a good actor, you’ll shut off and you’ll stop listening to them properly.

Sure, you might notice the words coming out of their mouth, but you’re not really hearing them. So this causes two issues, either you haven’t heard what they said, which means you’re not really connecting with them because you’re not hearing who they are, or they notice that you’re no longer paying attention and that you’re just agitated and waiting for your turn. And this makes them feel disconnected from you, like you don’t care about them.

You know when it’s happening to you, right? You know when somebody else is doing this, when you’re still talking and they’ve clearly tuned out and they’re just waiting for their go. They may even be actively interrupting you. And you know how that makes you feel.

The second mistake is making early conclusions about what they mean, assuming you know what they’re trying to say and what they mean before they’re finished. And this is similar to the first problem where you’ve already decided what needs to happen next.

But the problem is when people are expressing themselves, especially when they’re being honest rather than scripted, the expression itself is an exploration. As the words come out of the mouth, they hear them and it further clarifies the idea that they’re trying to portray, and so the full truth of what they’re trying to say doesn’t come until the very end. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve noticed that when I really pay attention and let someone finish what they’re saying, it’s often that the end is different from the start, that the idea evolves as they were speaking.

But if you just catch a few key words and you think you know the person, or you think you know people in general and you just jump to a conclusion, like, “Hey, I know what they mean, I know what they’re trying to say, I know where they’re going with this,” that body language will actually cut them off from finding that final idea. And even if they don’t see your body language, you will be blocked off from hearing the truth, and the truth comes at the end.

And the third mistake, possibly the most harmful one, is making an ungenerous interpretation. And what that means is you take whatever they’ve said and give it the worst possible, most negative, pessimistic interpretation. You assume that they have bad intentions, you assume that what they say is the most offensive thing that you can make of those words, and so on. People do this all the time, especially in online conversations.

If you take the opposite – a generous assumption – where, let’s say you say something that’s a bit controversial, but I assume that you’re a good person at the heart of it, I  assume that you’re trying to do something good, I assume that you hope that everybody has a good life and that maybe the way you put your words together just isn’t the best way to put it. But the idea is you’re trying to help someone – that’s a generous assumption. That’s me taking the best possible version of what you’re saying, and that’s more likely to lead to a connection.

If I give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re trying to be a good person, that you’re trying to portray good ideas, that you think you’re being helpful, then I can overlook some errors you might make with the choice of your words or some unintentionally offensive things you might say and so on, and see the gold at the heart of what you’re saying, at least the attempt. But if I’m ungenerous, I can spin even something that’s neutral into an insult. I can turn you into the bad guy by deliberately twisting the meaning of your words and so on. And there’s no way that leads to rapport.

The key to building rapport through powerful listening is paying attention, undivided attention, generous attention. Now, of course, maintaining nonstop attention is basically impossible for a human being. So when I’m talking about paying attention, I’m not talking about unbroken, perfect receiving of what they’re saying, but more so the ability to bring yourself back to paying attention when you notice that you’ve wandered.

Let’s say you get a great idea while they’re speaking. Let go of the idea come back to listening to them. Say you get distracted by someone walking in the background. Stop looking at that person and listen again. The quicker you’re able to do that, the quicker you’re able to bring your attention back, the more that you’ll hear of what they have to say, the more you’ll understand them.

You don’t actually have to be 100%. But if you’re 80, or 90%, you are going to get the message. If you’re 10 or 20%, you’re not going to hear anything. And this is why it’s so important to wait until they’re done. Not only does this make it more likely that you’ll get to the full truth of what they’re saying, because as I said they explore and it comes at the end. But it also allows you to pay attention by constantly dropping all the things that come up in your mind while they’re talking.

You’ll have good ideas, you’ll have relevant stories, you’ll have questions, all of these things will come up, but they’re not done yet. So just let them go. If they really matter, they’ll come back later, you don’t have to cling to them, like, “Oh, that’s a good idea, I can’t forget that.” You can forget it actually, that’s fine. Because the point isn’t to get your good idea across, the point is to build a connection with the person. So if interrupting them with your good idea hurts the connection, then it’s not really a good idea. Drop it. Just get used to that.

It’s very difficult. If anything good that comes up while they’re still going, I have to let it go and pay attention again. Because it’s only once I’ve heard everything they have to say that I’ll be able to come up with the best response.

Let’s look at some practical tips.

Reflective listening, and paraphrasing. This is a great piece of training that I advise you start with safe people, people you already know, and then eventually build up to strangers and so on. And this is basically before you say whatever it is that you’re going to say, your response to what they’ve just said, first, you reflect back what they’ve said, a kind of summary or a paraphrasing, or even better an interpretation.

“This is what I think you’re saying…” is the message that should come before you say your response. So if you say to someone, How’s your day going? And they respond, “This has been a rough day, I’ve really been struggling and totally exhausted.” Before you say “Oh, yeah, me too, because I did this blah, blah, blah…” You might say something like, “Yeah, it sounds like you’re pretty tired.” And you just give it back to them.

And of course this will be more sort of complex and nuanced with the more information they give you. But what you’re also trying to do is confirm whether or not you’ve heard them right, you’ve given them a chance to correct you if you’re wrong. So you’re saying “This is what I think you just said…” And they can tell you no, that’s not what I meant. Or they can say yes, exactly.

And that little action right there is probably the most powerful thing you’ll see in this video. And maybe even in this entire course.

The ability for you to reflect back before you have your turn, to say “Is this what you mean?: in various ways, is going to make them go, Oh, they’re really listening. They’re trying to understand me. And even if you get it wrong, it doesn’t matter. Because they’ll see that you’re trying. You want to be right, you want to know them. And that’s what builds rapport.

Now you can up the levels on this. One way you can do that is reflect the emotions you’re hearing underneath the words. So if someone says, Yeah, I’ve really been struggling and has been a tough day. “It sounds like it’s been a tough day for you”, that’s just reflecting the words. But if I say something like, “Yeah, I’m getting a tone of stress coming through as you’re talking,” now I’m reflecting the emotion.

Now, that’s how you make someone really feel heard. Because whenever somebody’s speaking words, you got to understand they’re expressing feelings, they’re always expressing feelings. Even in the case of somebody going through a diagnostic and statistical manual for engineering, there’s some feeling underneath what they’re saying. Maybe they’re passionate, maybe they’re bored, maybe they’re frustrated with you not listening. There’s something coming through.

And if you can show you heard that, that you’re not distracted by the words, you can see the mammal in them, the emotion, then you’re going to feel connected. You notice how we can connect with animals, we connect with dogs, and yet they can’t say a word of any human language? How is it we’re able to connect with them? Because we’re constantly showing them that we understand how they feel. They’re sad, we go give them a cuddle. If they’re happy, we get happy with them. We’re showing that we hear them emotionally. Well, humans are no different. And they respond really well to being showing that you heard them emotionally.

Another level up even from that is to reflect the point they’re making that they haven’t even said. When you look at what someone’s saying and how they’re feeling, they’re obviously trying to get some sort of message across to you. And it’s not in the words. It’s very rare that someone’s articulate enough to say what they really mean. Even if they trying to, people struggle.

What’s the why behind what they say? What’s the motive for them sharing this with you? Can you identify that? You know, if someone says “I have been really struggling, it’s been a tough day at work.” And you say something like, “Dude, I think you need a hug.” He was asking for a hug! That’s what all that was. He never said the word hug. Not once. He didn’t ask for anything. But the whole emotion is saying I need comfort. I’m struggling. I need comfort. I need love.

And if you can show that you heard that, you heard the real reason why they’re saying this, and you respond to that, they’re going to feel like you’re psychic, they’re going to feel like you know them better than they know themselves, which is often the case. And the thing is, it’s actually quite easy to find, you don’t need to be a psychologist to pick this out, you just need to be paying attention and guess like, Why do I think they’re saying that? Why would I say it? If I was them what would I be trying to achieve? And then throw it out there. Are you saying that because you want this…?

And if you’re wrong, they’ll correct you. But at least you’ll show that you’re paying attention. And if you’re right, they’ll say, Wow, you know me!

As I’ve already said, you want to try and make the most generous interpretation that you can possible. Take whatever they’ve said, especially if it offends you, or upsets you, or you disagree with it in some way, and before you get into just reacting to the words and reacting to your first interpretation of it, have another go and think what are they trying to accomplish that I do agree with?

Let’s say you’re in a debate with someone and they’re really on the other side of the fence on this issue for you. What you might notice is you’re both trying to make the world a better place with your views. You have completely different ideas as to how to achieve that, but you’re both actually trying to achieve the same thing. So you’re not really enemies at all, you just have different methods.

And if you can reflect that back to them, and say, “It’s amazing, I disagree with you so much but I can see that you are so passionate about helping young people,” they’re going to really bring the defensive walls down, because they’ll be like, Yes, thank you, you get what I’m trying to do, even though you don’t agree with me the least that at least we’re on the same page about that.

And how can we find some sort of compromise where we’re both achieving that goal together? That goes a long way to building rapport, especially with people that you disagree with.

Now, some difficulties you’re going to have are listening to certain people: there’s the people who undershare and the people who overshare, and you need some practical tips, some advanced skills, for dealing with these.

The under sharers – these are people who don’t say enough and don’t give enough depth and don’t match you in terms of how transparent you’re being. Silence is the way. Basically, you treat them like they’re not done speaking yet. So if you said to someone How’s your weekend? and they’re just like, “Fine,” just stare at them as if they just started the sentence and they haven’t finished it. Your body language should say “AND?”

What you’re putting out there is you need to match me. I’m not going to hit this ball back in this tennis game until you’ve hit it all the way over the net. So I’m waiting, waiting, waiting over here.

I don’t recommend you use questions to draw information out of people, because that’s manipulative and puts them under pressure, it’s actually going to make them shut down more. But if you can hold an awkward silence longer than they can, they’ll be forced to share.

Bear in mind also, under sharers need leadership. You need to go first, you need to show that you’re willing to be transparent and deep and honest. And then you shut up and you make sure they have their full turn. In a worst case scenario, you can challenge them and say, Look, you’re not sharing enough for this to be a balanced relationship. You’re on a date with someone say, Look, I’ve told you everything about me, you haven’t told me anything about you. It’s your turn now.

So you can challenge people directly. But you’ll often find silence is enough when they’ve given a less than adequate response. Staying in the conversation but quietly is enough to prompt someone… or they’ll leave, in which case you save yourself time.

Oversharers are people who give too much information. They don’t match you but in the other direction. They’re doing most of the work, they’re sharing most of the information, you can’t even get a turn to speak. They make multiple points when they talk, like you’re playing tennis and someone’s just firing balls over before you’ve even hit the first one back. And that’s a very overwhelming feeling.

Now people do this from a place of anxiety. Right? They’re doing it because they’re scared that they’ll lose your attention, that they’ll lose your love, that they have to throw as much stuff against the wall to see what will stick as possible. That silence just fills them with dread. And occasionally. it’s done by people who have a big ego and they just want to hear the sound of their own voice.

But either way you need to interrupt them. This is where I do recommend interrupting. And about the point you want to interrupt is where you start feeling agitated because there’s too much information or because it really is your turn, and that turn is being used by the other person. Generally it comes after they’ve actually made a point; they’ve said something that you can respond to in full, and now they’re on to something else. Or they’re trying to make a point but there’s just too much added detail. There’s too many side tracks and side missions going on in the story for you to actually even know what they’re trying to say.

This is where you interrupt them. And the way to interrupt them without provoking further anxiety for them, is to make it about you, is to say like, “I can’t handle this much information,” or “I can’t keep track of what’s being said,” or “You’ve made three points and I can only respond to one.”

You’re showing a kind of lack of ability on your own side to handle the way they’re talking, rather than sort of insulting them or accusing them of being bad at conversation. You’re saying they might be fine at conversation skills but you can’t handle the way they’re talking and here’s what they can do to make it easier for you. And you can set that boundary early and keep resetting every time you need to, when you say, Look, just make one point at a time.

I might say something like, “Look, I’m like a little bit autistic, I can’t handle multiple points, let’s deal with the first point first. So what you said was this, blah, blah, blah, is that right?”

I just keep like putting a fence around the conversation: you’re done. Now it’s my turn to hit the ball. And this can be a running joke with someone who’s an oversharer. Say you’re in a relationship with an oversharer. Say, “You’re doing the thing again, you know I can’t keep up with all those details, just what’s the point of the story? help me understand you!”

You’re showing, I want to understand you and you don’t need to do this. I don’t need you to overshare. I don’t need this much information. You don’t need to convince me, I’m listening. And when you do this, and combine it with making generous assumptions and generous interpretations, they’ll relax. They’ll realize, I don’t have to sell this to this person. I don’t have to try and keep their attention.

Charisma is often described as the ability to make the other person feel like they’re the most important person in the room. Right? A charismatic person makes other people feel important. And powerful listening is the method to do that. No matter who you’re talking to. If it’s a casual chat at the bus stop, buying your groceries from the person at the till, talking to your best friend or your family member. Treat it like it’s your last conversation and it’s with the wisest, the most important person you’ve ever met. And you will see the difference. You will see how quickly you can build rapport, deep lasting, memorable conversations, just by listening powerfully. Thank you for watching.

If you’d like support, accelerate your progress in mastering the social arts and becoming someone who can connect deeply with anyone, get in touch dan@brojo.org

We can talk about coaching.

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