Remember this question? “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” 

Let’s change it up… “If someone shares something important, but we’re not actively listening, did they really say anything?”

My wife was sharing something with me the other day, and although I was physically in the room and hearing the words she spoke, I wasn’t really listening. To be transparent, as she was talking I was more focused on my response to what she was saying than I was to her words. Realizing this rattled me and led me to dig into the art of active listening.

Here’s the journey I’m on, and five things I’m trying to focus on…

Let me start here. I am still an active listening rookie – a very raw, work in progress. I like to think of myself as a diamond in the rough, with the potential to be a great listener. I want to become that for my wife specifically – she deserves that from me as her partner and best friend. My kids deserve the same, and so do my friends.

As I dug into developing my listening skills, I began by thinking about how I listen at work. I pride myself on being good at asking the right questions. I’m naturally curious. My ability to ask questions and then listen to help clients uncover unique solutions to their challenges is something I’m proud of. Asking the right questions is powerful, but listening is where the real power lies. So if I’m so good at this with my clients, how can I use that strength to go deeper with the people closest to me.

Here are five active listening basics I’m working on…

  1. Eliminate Distractions – I can explain this one in four words: Put your phone away. Today more than ever, our technology is an enemy to real connection, and it is especially lethal in its ability to hijack our listening. If you look around, you’ll see some of the distractions that are keeping you from connecting at the level you want. Eliminate them. Put the phone away, turn off the wrist alerts, physically move to a different space, quit trying to multi-task. Remove the distractions and get focused on the person you’re talking to.
  2. Open Up and Lean In – Every great conversation begins with eye contact and visual focus on the other person. It also requires good body language. Lean in a little bit and use your posture to show that you’re all-in on the conversation you’re sharing. “Sharing” is a great word to consider… conversations are one of the most intimate exchanges humans can have together. They require both mental and physical connection, and so make sure your body language says, “I’m here with you.
  3. Ask Questions and Understand – I hit on this earlier – asking the right question is the key that opens the door to great conversations. There’s no rocket science here. One of the first steps to great listening is being intentional to check-in and ask people what’s going on in their lives. As you’re listening try to step into the shoes of the person you’re listening to. Empathy begins here. You’ll never understand every part of the other person’s life, but soak in their answers and try to understand the world through their point of view as best you can. Unless we take a moment to step out of our lives and go deep into someone else’s, we can never really listen with an open mind. 
  4. Don’t Talk or Interrupt – Someone (probably my mom) once told me that you couldn’t listen and talk at the same time. Good listening involves keeping your mouth shut, which can be very challenging. It’s simple in theory – just let the other person speak, focus on their words, and try to hear what they’re communicating to you. Unfortunately, and I don’t think I’m the only one afflicted with this, we’re all eager to make our points and be heard. Being heard makes us feel important and valued, and so we speak up when we should shut up. One of the driving forces that makes me want to start talking is my intrusive desire to fix things. If someone shares a challenge, and I can see a solution, I immediately shift into solution mode. I’ve come to realize, though, that not everyone wants a quick fix. Most of the time, they just want to feel heard and understood, so be quiet and listen.
  5. Repeat and Reaffirm – After someone shares something with you, process it, and repeat it back in your own words so you know you heard what they were trying to share. This repetition can be one of the most important and easy to overlook steps. It’s how we battle against assumptions or misunderstandings, and a simple way to create alignment and gel together.

The Takeaway

As I shared in the beginning, active listening is a work in progress for me. I still catch myself regularly missing the mark here, but I’m becoming more conscious of my misses and trying to grow in this area of my life. My relationships depend on it. My challenge for each of you this week is to pick one of the five areas above that is challenging to you – focus on listening more actively in that single area. Do it at home, at work, with your spouse and kids, friends, and family. Listening is one of the core ways we create depth in our lives, so put the work in to get stronger in this area.

Ready for More?

Every week in the Depth Not Width blog, we dig into the habits and focus areas that help make us better. Subscribe here for next week’s post where we’ll dive into some of those goals we set at the beginning of the year and explore how to stay on track beyond January… See you next week!

– John Gamades