Way back in the nineties I became aware of the Tour de France. It looked interesting, lots of action, amazing feats of riding and endurance, and the likes of Miguel Indurain, Jan Ullrich and the now-deposed Lance Armstrong making the headlines. For me, though it was just a bike race, and a bike race simply meant the fastest cyclist winning.
Fortunately, I knew someone who understood about cycling and he was able to explain that it was far more than just a bike race. I quizzically looked at him, ‘What more is there to know about a bike race, surely I know all there is to know. I have been riding since my Dad taught me and I can see it is a bike race with my own two eyes”. Oh, how wrong I was….
He explained to me about the teams, the way they are set up, i.e. sprinters, climbers, time trialists, and the domestiques, (riders who serve others in the team). He coached me on the meaning of GC (Grand Classification), King of the Mountains, the various coloured jerseys, the tactics, etc. Patiently, he listened to all my questions, “Why does the leader let another rider go off ahead and win a stage? Why does nobody attack the race leader on the last day”, and so many more?
Turns out that the Tour de France is far more than just a bike race. I learned how to watch it actively, rather than passively. What a difference this has made to my enjoyment and understanding of the race.
So what has this all to do with active listening?
Only 6% of us are actually active listeners, yet the majority of us believe we are good listeners. Many people would say – “What more is there to know about listening, surely I know all there is to know, I have been doing it all my life, I can hear well enough with my own two ears”. The reality is that listening is passive, active listening is, well, active.
So what does active listening entail that makes it so different to just listening?
- Attention – giving the person who is speaking your full attention. If there is anything more important to you at the time the person is speaking, stop the conversation and go and do it. Attention is the greatest gift you can give to another person, be it a work colleague, your partner or your children.
- Eye contact – looking the speaker in the eyes, and continuing to do so even when they look away to think. The quality of their thinking will increase when they return to looking at you and notice that you are still looking.
- Silence – not speaking, or even looking like you want to speak. Even when it feels or looks like they have finished, wait longer. More often the best thinking happens in that moment of silence.
- No interrupting – do not say anything, as doing so interrupts their thinking. Ideally, do not take notes.
- Be curious – intend to be open-minded and interested about whatever they may say to you,
- Body Language – sit facing the speaker, lean forwards, unfold your arms, be still, relax and breathe deeply and quietly.
- No fixing – you are here to listen, not to fix them or to solve their problem. In listening they will more often than not arrive at a solution without you saying anything.
- Equality – see the person in front of you as an equal, fellow human being, who needs to talk or think.
- No judging – difficult as it may be, this is not about right or wrong, just an opportunity for them to speak and to think.
- Appreciation – once the conversation is over, offer one specific thing that you appreciate about them, and do so whilst looking them in the eye.