I’ve been working with two different clients lately, of two different genders, in two different companies, from two different states who have two entirely different approaches to listening. One client actually listens too intently, and the other doesn’t seem to be listening at all. Is it really possible to listen too much? Well, you decide: Whenever someone talks to my client, she leans in very close, nods her head vigorously up and down, constantly says “uh-huh, uh-huh” every second, and appears as though she is literally hanging on your every word. When you’re talking with her it’s hard to keep your thoughts straight because her listening behavior is so distracting. I’m sure she believes she’s using effective active listening skills and showing others that she is involved and interested in the conversation, but from the other side of the table it is a turn off. !
On the other end of the spectrum, another client tends not to show any listening skills at all. As such, you never know what he’s thinking, if he’s hearing you, or if he even cares. He has a poker face—no smile or facial expressions—and sometimes he even yawns!
As with many communication skills, using too much or too little skill can ruin your credibility and reputation. If you “over” listen, your behavior can be distracting, attract too much attention, cause a negative response, and make you appear less confident, less comfortable, and too eager. If you “under” listen, your behavior can be offensive, make you appear rude and disinterested, and put others in an uncomfortable situation. Yes, good listening skills are critical in business and in life, but overdoing or underdoing gets poor results.
So where’s the happy medium? What constitutes “good” listening skills? Here are few suggestions:
- Face the other person and look directly in their eyes.
- Lean slightly towards them and sit at a 45 degree angle.
- Maintain a neutral facial expression with subtle changes as the conversation changes—mirroring the facial expression of the talker. In other words, smile when they smile, show gravity when they are serious, etc.
- Occasionally use a vocal sound, such as a “uh-huh,” to show that you understand.
- Nod your head slightly and subtly.
- Reflect back what you have heard using such phrases as, “So what you’re saying is…” or “It sounds like you would like to…” Paraphrase what the other person just said.
Those are simple but powerful rules. The bottom line is this: If you are truly listening to what someone is saying and not off in your own head solving the next problem, thinking about your next vacation, feeling insecure in the face of power, or having other distractions keep you from paying attention, then all the skill in the world will not produce the results you want. So the biggest rule of all when it comes to listening is this: Listen to others the way you would want them to listen to you—no more, no less. Try it. The results will amaze you.