Lesson 2: Understanding What the Speaker is Saying—What to Do (and Not Do) on the Outside
Zenger and Folkman’s Level 3 listening concerns understanding the speaker’s verbal communication—the words, thoughts, and ideas he’s sharing. To do this effectively, there are several dos and don’ts for how to interact with the speaker.
Here are three important “do’s”:
- First, make sure that your posture is open and interested. Lean in. Don’t cross your arms, as that signals that you’re closed off to hearing what the speaker’s saying. You want your body language to say, “Go ahead; I’m listening.”
- Give the speaker regular feedback by reflecting her feelings, paraphrasing what she says (you might start by saying, “In other words, what you’re saying is…”), or at least nodding, making appropriate facial expressions, or saying “Mmm-hmm” periodically.
- Ask clarifying questions—but wait till the speaker pauses first. Avoid closed, yes/no questions. Instead, ask open-ended questions to encourage the speaker to explain.
And here are two important “don’ts”:
- Don’t be a “sentence-grabber.” Don’t interrupt and finish the speaker’s thoughts for him because he seems to be having a hard time saying what he means. You’ll probably be way off base. Plus, it’s likely to frustrate the speaker. Be patient and resist the urge to fill silence until you’re sure the other person is finished speaking.
- Don’t pull the conversation off track by picking up on a minor detail and going off on a tangent or by “topping” what the speaker is saying (“That reminds me of the time…”). This sends the message that you’re more interested in what you have to say than what the other person has to say.
By showing with your body language that you’re interested in what the speaker has to say, by not interrupting, and by asking for clarification or paraphrasing when you aren’t sure what the speaker’s saying, you’re much more likely to understand what the speaker’s saying to you.
If you can take these basic do’s and don’ts to heart, practice them and make them habitual, you’ll put yourself above 90% of people when it comes to listening skills.
Here’s a fun, creative exercise that uses the “power of the negative” to firmly plant in your brain a visual reminder of what you don’t want to do in a conversation.
Choose a scenario (two old friends meeting for the first time in a couple of years to catch up, a dinner conversation with your in-laws, a conversation with your carpool buddy on the long drive to work, etc.) and use the worksheet provided to write out the transcript of a conversation in which the other person is basically the world’s worst conversationalist. Have him or her break every single do and don’t in the list above. Your goal here is to create a great example of what you don’t want to do in your own conversations.
Be creative with this. Be over the top. The wilder the example you create of what not to do, the better you’ll remember it.
Once you’ve written out the conversation, read it through a few times to make sure it sticks. In the coming days, every time you’re in a conversation, try to notice when you unintentionally do something that your negative example did in this exercise. Don’t beat yourself up about it when it happens (and it will; old habits are hard to break). Just take note of it and make an adjustment.