For the last two decades, I’ve invested considerable time into developing communication skills. I have a degree in journalism, I’ve explored the neuroscience & psychology on how to help stories stick in the brain, and I’ve had hundreds of hours of practice in speaking, writing, and even body language.
My professional skill set has centered on the impact of words. I deliver keynotes and workshops on how to write better faster, how to stand out in a noisy world, and how to make your message memorable.
But that’s not today’s topic. In the last few years especially, there’s been an abundance of noise. There is no shortage of communication. And almost all of it is what is called “push” communication – meaning pushed out to the masses. Think of the targeted ads in digital spaces that you see, the extended emails with a long list of recipients, and the pop-up boxes that demand to be seen whether you want them there or not.
In all this information, we’ve lost the art of listening. The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that the gift no one is giving is the precious practice of being present.
When I was a journalist, I was taught techniques on how to ask and follow up on questions. One of the key pieces was to simply hold space after a response. In an interview setting – and that can be for the news, a job interview, or even when you’re on a date – the participants come in expecting a dialogue to happen. But they are also aware of the ping pong pattern of that dialogue. They are quickly assessing what was said and then how to return a response that seems appropriate for the exchange.
Interactions are often strung together like sound bites. We’re all trying to be pithy as quickly as possible.
Active listening is a skill. It’s where you seek to understand what is being shared before you respond. And there are several tactics for this practice, but this episode is meant to serve as a reminder of the lost art of listening on purpose. How that becomes intentional and natural for you will take some practice.
For today, I’ll share three ideas on how to start, or strengthen, your role in not talking.
The first is the pause, which is another way to hold some space that I mentioned a minute ago. In our busy, excited, and interactive days, our words often overlap. When you pause (even quickly) before speaking, it does a couple things. First, it allows the other person to expand on what they were saying (or finish it), and it also gives your brain a chance to catch up on what was just shared.
As a new journalist, a professor told all of us to try waiting three seconds after each answer. Doing so, he said, encourages the other person to keep talking. And that encouragement can lead us to move past pat answers and tiptoe a bit more into authentic sharing.
This three-second theory was reinforced in a 2020 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. This particular research was exploring business negotiations and the researchers found that short periods of silence interrupted default thinking in the brain and could lead to what they called “the recognition of golden opportunities.”
More simply put, silence affords the chance to think a bit more deeply and for a spark of insight to come forward. In our day-to-day interactions, that spark could mean a deeper connection.
Another element of a more focused conversation is to be intentional about the amount of external stimulus. With so much communication happening through a device or with a device nearby, even the most focused brains feel the digital draw.
If feasible in the circumstances, try closing your eyes when listening to someone. Maybe not the whole time but at certain points. This will hyper focus your senses into what and how the other person is speaking. You might pick up on a word choice or a pause in their own pace that gives you a different signal.
Movement also helps the brain engage. So if you have the option of sitting and talking or moving, try moving. I put this into practice a lot during Covid when I would switch conversations from a screen to a walk-and-talk. Not only did the fresh air help with my mood, I found I remembered the conversations much better than the ones done on back-to-back screen meetings.
And there’s science as to why. We settle into a certain inertia when we are sitting. Studies have shown that every time we move our bodies, a number of neurotransmitters get released into our brain. One of these is norepinephrine which helps with concentration, among other things. So in these situations when you have the chance to do some movement, it adds a little neurochemical bubble bath for your brain -and it can really help you remember that conversation later.
Following the tips of pausing and moving is to find one or two verbal signals that are natural to you and that can encourage the other person to keep sharing. Sometimes it can be as simple as an acknowledgement sound, like mm-hmm. Other times, it’s a quick prompt like: Say more on that or Can you share an example?
Based on the conversation, sometimes the best response is simply an acknowledgement like I hear you. It’s funny how often we don’t hear that we are heard.
In our fast-paced days, a few seconds of silence or a few words can change the trajectory of a conversation and potentially even deepen the connection.
We don’t always have the ability to give a lot, but even a few small efforts can mean a lot. As you find yourself in conversations in the days ahead, see where you can adjust the dial just a bit.
Not everything needs our full attention, but when something does, your attention will matter in the conversations with those who matter.