Ep. 77 – Be a Better Listener: Words to Use & Tips to Try

One of the things I most enjoy in my work is the chance to hear from a variety of experts on a variety of things. Recently, I was speaking at a large event in Seattle that had nearly 2,000 attendees and there were dozens of speakers with expertise in so many different areas. I was able to sit in on different sessions and one was led by a former hostage negotiator. 

As a longtime communicator, I knew many of the core principles but hearing them again through his delivery was such a great reminder of how important we can help other people feel in conversations. One of the best ways to do this is through what is called ‘active listening’. 

Episode 65 explored the idea of active listening in more depth and offered three ways to help be a better listener. Today’s episode digs deeper into the art of listening and explores ideas on how to hear more of what isn’t always being said. 

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that there is often a chance to re-hear and re-learn what we might already know. Fresh knowledge can lead to refreshed ideas and outcomes. And sometimes the most important details are only a question or two away. 

One way to get there is through a common communication technique called ‘mirroring.’ This refers to the practice of imitating the behaviors, gestures, expressions, or even speech patterns of another person, either intentionally or unconsciously. You often see mirroring happening  in social interactions as a form of nonverbal communication and as a way that people express interest in or admiration of the other person or group. 

One funny example of this is how my mother has the habit of picking up the accent of the person she is talking to without even realizing it. Whether we’re in Nashville, Tennessee, where she drops a lot of y’alls in a drawl or we’re in Rome and she’s waving her hands and saying Grazie Mille!, she is mirroring the people around her as part of her enthusiasm. 

Shifting back to the art of active listening, mirroring can signal to the other person that you are invested in what they are saying and sharing. One way to do this is with intentional nudges or prompts in your conversation. I’ll share a few questions that might encourage the other person to continue or expand on what they were saying. 

The first prompt is to say, “That’s interesting, what makes you say that?”

What this does here is two things. The first is to make room for the person to add context or clarification to what they said or asked. The second thing is that it allows you a chance to process and check to see if you are about to react or respond. What’s the difference? Good question, and one that Episode 50 outlined the distinction of and the subtle shifts between each of them. 

Quickly, a reaction is an immediate action taken from something that happened and a response incorporates  a bit more space to consider options beyond the instinctive. The time between the intake of information and any related action occurs within a fraction of a second. Actually to be more specific, there are 1,000 milliseconds in a second and a person’s average reaction time is between 150 and 300 milliseconds depending on the circumstances. So it happens before we are even consciously aware of it.

Your brain and your body are going about observing and absorbing information at lightning speed and then making decisions just as fast. So having a few handy responses or prompts might be helpful during key conversations. 

 Another prompt that you can use is to say, “Thank you for sharing that. Say more, please.”

You’re acknowledging the information and actively asking to hear more of their position. From an information science perspective, more input from them is more data for you (the listener). From an information psychology perspective, you are investing in their words by asking for more. 

Let’s shift to conversations where there might be differing opinions or points of view. It’s natural for people to get heated or want to defend their position. 

In those cases try asking, “What would it take for you to feel differently about this?” This explores the breadth and depth of their opinion and it’s a way  to see if this is strongly felt but loosely held. 

Now “strongly felt but loosely held” is a particular phrasing that I first encountered when I was working at Amazon for many years. It was an aspect of the company’s leadership principles about showing backbone in an opinion but also having the intellectual curiosity to explore other points of view. 

One final question you might try to pose is “What are your concerns on this?”

It goes beyond the statement and gets into the “why.” We can quickly get into the ping pong of opinions without exploring the roots of why they are there in the first place. Asking about concerns and considerations goes beyond trying to change someone’s mind or giving quick, pat answers. It allows opportunities to be educated and, ideally, understood-for all the people involved. 

To recap, the questions are:

That’s interesting, what makes you say that?

Thank you for sharing, say more…

What would it take for you to feel differently about this?

and What are your concerns?

For those more casual times when you don’t want to start sorting through a mental catalog of questions, another simple mirroring technique is to simply repeat the last few words that the other person just said. So if you ask someone about their day and they say: I dunno, it was kind of boring; you could pick up the last bit and repeat it back as a question such as: Kind of boring?

This is another signal that they were heard and opens the option for them to elaborate. I used to do this on my boys when they were in school as a way to get them to open up without the lengthy peppering of parental questions. In some cases, it might take a few prompts to get past the quick answers so try it when it feels natural. 

Whether through questions, body language, or just a general focus on being present, the best way to improve the way you listen is to simply try your best. It’s one of the many ways we can try to take care to show how much we care. 

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.