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Want to add lasting value at work and in personal relationships? In our attention economy, being a good listener helps you stand out for the right reasons.

2020 forced most of us to adapt our communication style at work and at home — we practiced ‘smizing’ (smiling with your eyes) while wearing a mask, and we schooled ourselves on how to look our best on video calls. We also struggled with pandemic-related communication perils, including social isolation and outrage-driven headlines and political discourse.

So what does all of this mean for 2021 — should we sharpen our wits for verbal sparring? Maybe, but if we want to build rapport, trust, and collaborative productivity after months of virtual isolation, now seems an ideal time to elevate our listening skills with colleagues, friends, family, and even strangers. We have everything to gain, including deeper connections, more supportive relationships, better career prospects… and we might even be surprised by what we learn about ourselves.

Here are several insights about listening I’ve taken from some of the most memorable titles I reviewed on my podcast, Audiobook Reviews in Five Minutes.

Get curious, not furious: reframing conversations

European Ground Squirrel standing up and looking curious in a field of daisies

Do you fondly reminisce about losing your temper and “speaking your truth”? I’m willing to bet that even if you savoured a recent moment of righteous indignation, you didn’t love the entire aftermath. Maybe you even feel secretly embarrassed or regretful that you strained or severed an important relationship.

What if, instead of “telling it like it is”, you put the brakes on your reactivity and channeled a spirit of curiosity? In his 2016 book, Never Split the Difference, former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss brilliantly outlines his approach to negotiation, a term he applies broadly to all conversations that start with “I want”, including arguments with your child over bedtime, setting expectations with your boss (or direct reports), as well as more obvious negotiations in sales and government relations.

Voss illustrates the art of reframing conversation context by asking calibrated questions that start with “what” or “how.” These two words can calibrate pretty much any question, he explains: “‘Does this look like something you would like?’ can become ‘How does this look to you?’ or ‘What about this works for you?’”

Examples of calibrated questions (remember to listen carefully to the answers!)

  • What is the biggest challenge you face?
  • What about this is important to you?
  • How can I help to make this better for us?
  • How would you like me to proceed?
  • How can we solve this problem?

“When you are verbally assaulted, do not counterattack. Instead, disarm your counterpart by asking a calibrated question.” ― Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It

A lack of curiosity is conversational kryptonite. If you’re merely waiting for your turn to speak, how can you possibly listen to what your conversation partner is saying, let alone ask them intelligent and thoughtful questions?

Tip: If you find yourself getting distracted by anger, boredom, or a sense of overwhelm while listening, try silently repeating your conversational partner’s words back to yourself as they speak them.

Words can conceal what silence reveals: watch for non-verbal communication

Macaque with contemplative expression in Bali’s Ubud Monkey Forest Sanctuary

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had your fill of conference video chats in 2020 (fun fact: “Oysgezoomt,” is a freshly coined Yiddish word meaning “fatigued or bored by Zoom.”). But consider the advantages of 1:1 personal video conversations, especially compared to text message exchanges. While our expanding library of emoji options is fun, social media posts and text messages have distinct disadvantages that make them prone to misinterpretation and ultimately inefficient for intimate conversations that demand emotional nuance.

Gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact (or lack thereof), body language, posture, and other ways people communicate without using words are missing when we text, yet these behaviours comprise nearly 55% to 90% of human communication, depending on your research sources. No matter how you slice the data, that’s a lot of information and context we miss in audio-only and text conversations.

In Julian Treasure’s 2018 book, How to Be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening, the sound expert and communication visionary highlights how to re-tune your ears for conscious listening — to other people and the world around you.

Video: Treasure shares five ways to re-tune your ears for conscious listening — to other people and the world around you.

“Listening is something that we have to work at — it’s a relationship with sound. And yet, it’s a skill that none of us are taught.” ―Julian Treasure, How to Be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening

Tip: If you’re not able to meet in person for a conversation, consider planning a focused 1:1 video chat with the best possible internet connection you have access to, so you have more visual cues to work with. Even without video, gaining access to the best audio quality will enhance your conversation experience and convey respect for your conversation partner.

Your mindset and habits: practice, not perfection

Seven Canada geese in flight together

All the best insights and advice about listening are only as useful as our ability to apply them in real life. As a communications professional, I see opportunities for better connection and meaningful engagement every day, but many of these opportunities fail to materialize into results because so many of us focus solely on broadcasting one-way texts or social media posts, or leading a conversation without listening or engaging in a thoughtful response.

If you look around you at the strongest, most loving relationships and the most effective leaders and teams, consider how they prioritize listening instead of merely pushing their messages out to their audience. These individuals and teams listen thoughtfully when they ask for feedback and they use conflict as an opportunity to engage and collaborate instead of becoming entrenched in their position or argument.

As Kate Murphy marvellously illustrates in her 2020 book, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, being listened to has become such a novelty because listening itself is a challenging skill to learn in our frenetic attention economy: “Despite living in a world where technology allows constant digital communication and opportunities to connect, it seems no one is really listening or even knows how. And it’s making us lonelier, more isolated, and less tolerant than ever before.” She also cites World Health Organization reports that show in the last forty-five years, suicide rates have risen 60 percent globally, a trend directly correlated to sustained feelings of loneliness and lack of connection.

The good news is that you hold a distinct advantage if you can become a better listener, since this skill is in short supply, and demand continues to rise.

Practicing listening is essential to our ability to listen carefully, Murphy adds, “Listening is more of a mindset than a checklist of dos and don’ts. It’s a very particular skill that develops over time by interacting with all kinds of people — without an agenda or having aides there to jump in if the conversation goes anywhere unexpected or untoward.”

“ Listening is arguably more valuable than speaking. Wars have been fought, fortunes lost, and friendships wrecked for lack of listening. Calvin Coolidge famously said, ‘No man ever listened himself out of a job.’ It is only by listening that we engage, understand, connect, empathize, and develop as human beings. It is fundamental to any successful relationship — personal, professional, and political. ― Kate Murphy, New York Times contributor and author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters

Tip: Consider your listening habits in your most important relationships. Are there opportunities for you to practice better listening, which can help set the tone in your next conversation? What habit(s) can you put into practice every day?

Why does this matter?

The events of 2020 serve as a stark reminder of what happens when history repeats itself and we have to re-learn hard lessons while we’re distracted and outraged. Becoming better listeners can only improve our ability to connect meaningfully in 2021, and most of us stand to benefit significantly if we can practice our listening skills deliberately every day. Best of all, practicing is free and we can make it as fun or challenging as we need it to be.