Updated: Jun 15, 2021
Most meetings aren't memorable, but I recall attending one where an important topic was on the agenda, and I knew leaders within the organization attended with the intent to listen. However, when the dialogue headed in a direction that made one leader uncomfortable, he stopped listening and made a variety of statements I suspect he wishes he could take back.
We’ve all been there.
I’ve earned two degrees in communication, read books about listening, attended workshops on listening, taught lectures about listening, and even written articles on the subject, but I often fail to listen well.
Think about a recent experience in your own life where you know you could have been a better listener. The situation may have left you feeling like you over contributed, realizing you interrupted others, or even left others feeling like you didn’t value their perspective.
In that situation, what did you do prior to the interaction to prepare to listen? Chances are, not much. When you have an important meeting with your supervisor, you likely think about what you plan to say. And when faced with a high-stakes presentation, you likely create notes or slides in preparation. But we tend to put little to no thought into how we are going to listen.
I suspect some professions struggle with preparing to listen more than others. For example, CEOs, medical professionals, educators, and consultants often mistakenly assume their job is to provide answers. If you are accustomed to being the expert in the room or see yourself as the person who has answers, then you may have never considered the value of spending time preparing to listen. In fact, each of these professions can complete multiple academic degrees where little to no attention is given to this topic.
When I help individuals and teams prepare to present, I help them develop a presentation preparation process. Similarly, regardless of what you do, there’s great value in developing a listening preparation process.
1. Set Your Intention
Most of us have developed poor listening habits, so if we want to become better listeners we have to set the intention to listen well in advance of a given communication situation. Ask yourself, “What do I aim to accomplish?” Listening might not be your primary objective, but it’s an often overlooked skill essential for accomplishing a goal.
2. Gather Background Information
A second way to prepare to listen is consider the situation and gather relevant background information. This step is about doing your homework so you are knowledgeable about the content being discussed. In addition, take time to understand the other person or people you will be listening to. What do they know? What are their needs? How do they feel? Consider any unconscious biases you may have and how they could influence your ability to hear what they have to say.
3. Monitor Your Emotions
Consider how you feel about the topic now and consider how you might feel while you are in the situation. This step is especially important if you are approaching the interaction with feelings of fear or anger. The stronger your emotions, the more important it will be to invest time in your listening preparation process.
4. Practice Listening
The best way I know to become a better listener is to practice listening. You can practice this skill in everyday interactions, but it’s especially important when preparing for a difficult conversation. You might find a trusted colleague or friend to rehearse the conversation with.
Practicing a conversation might feel a bit awkward, but I encourage you to approach it with an open mind. Consider this: We wouldn't think it’s strange to practice playing a game of tennis before an important match. However, we might think it’s strange to practice a conversation before an important interaction. Only practicing what you plan to say would be like practicing for a tennis match by only initiating a serve and never returning a ball hit to you.
Anticipate what you might hear and anticipate how you will respond. Consider your verbal as well as your nonverbal response. Practice letting the other person finish what they are saying without interruption. Practice allowing for space between exchanges (i.e., practice getting comfortable with silence). Think about how you will respond, but more importantly in the listening preparation process, consider what questions you might ask so that you can better understand the other person's perspective.
Another way to practice listening is to listen to information you don’t agree with. You can do this by tuning into the cable news network whose political leanings you disagree with. Imagine yourself in conversation with the people on screen. See how your body responds. Hit pause on your remote and consider what question you might ask the person, not to debate them, but to truly understand why they believe what they believe.
5. Prepare Your Body
Listening is difficult and so much can prevent us from doing it well. Personally, I know I struggle to listen when I am tired and hungry. Therefore, if I know I am going into a situation where listening is essential, I do my best to plan ahead by getting rest and ensuring I’ve had enough to eat. A CEO of a publicly traded company recently told me that he likes to go for a meditative walk before high stakes communication situations. This part of the preparation process clears his mind and sets his intention.
6. Get Ready
Your listening preparation process ends the moment the interaction begins. In those moments before, consider where you might sit in the relation to the other person. You might also consider what to bring with you. Personally, I find it helpful to bring a notepad and something to write with. Sometimes I write down things I want to say, or I write down a question I want to ask. Finally, as you begin the conversation, don’t forget to breathe.