How to be a better listener in a world where everyone's talking

“Oh yeah, you’re right,” he answers.

It’s the second morning of my visit to our San Francisco office.

Between my colleague and I lie a computer screen, a smartphone face-up, and a time-sensitive issue that I’m trying to explain.

Even though he makes eye contact and offers the occasional nod or “mm-hmm,” his eyes often dart back to his screen.

I know he is not listening.

Apparently, only about 10 percent of us listen effectively. And when we don’t listen — I mean really listen — we shortchange ourselves and our conversation partner.

At Jotform, we have 130 employees and 4.2 million users. Listening has proven invaluable to our growth. Indeed, listening to our customers brought us 1 million new users last year alone.

But just like public speaking, listening is a skill that requires deliberate practice.

Given that humans have an average eight-second attention span, it can be challenging, but good listening is worth every bit of the effort.

The sound value of listening

“We should all know this: that listening, not talking, is the gifted and great role, and the imaginative role. And the true listener is much more believed, magnetic than the talker, and he is more effective and learns more and does more good.” — Brenda Ueland

Back in 2006, 1–800-GOT-JUNK was headed towards a messy situation. The company’s VP of finance warned his colleagues to cut back their spending. An introvert by nature, his voice was drowned out by more dominant personalities, and his advice went unheeded.

The junk-hauling company expanded too fast and ran out of cash. The company managed to survive, but had they listened closely, they would have saved themselves significant stress and financial trouble.

We tend to value speaking over the ability to listen — particularly in leadership positions. But when you listen carefully, you have the opportunity to gain new perspectives and learn the things you don’t know you don’t know.

As a former U.S. defense secretary once explained

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And… it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

With a more comprehensive understanding of the situation, including the unknown unknowns, you’ll ultimately reach better resolutions.

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As the 1-800-GOT-JUNK story shows, listening can make or break your business. It’s crucial to listen to all voices — perhaps even more so the quieter ones that don’t demand to be heard.

The difference between listening and outstanding listening

In the late ’90s, social psychologists coined the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, it’s the human tendency to overestimate our cognitive abilities and how well we listen.

Top-level listening is known as “360° listening” — when you’re listening to what someone is saying and how they’re saying it.

One step down is focused listening, in which we’re listening but not fully connecting. For example, we don’t notice nonverbal cues, like energy and body language.

Finally, there’s internal listening, when we’re focused on our own thoughts, worries and priorities, and simply pretend to hear our conversation partner.

Cognitive bias might lead us to think we’re always 360° listeners, but in reality, we’re usually engaged in focused or internal listening.

As it turns out, the best listeners also share certain characteristics. Outstanding listeners:

  • Are not silent. They ask questions that promote discovery and insight. Good listening is a two-way dialogue, not a one-sided monologue.
  • Boost their partner’s self-esteem. By conveying support and confidence, an outstanding listener makes the conversation a positive experience for both parties.
  • Are cooperative, not combative. We’ve all had conversations where it feels like someone is waiting to contradict or correct us. It’s stressful and distracting. Strong listening allows feedback to flow smoothly, so neither speaker feels defensive.
  • Offer constructive suggestions. Good feedback depends on the information and how you offer it. When a colleague can tell that you’re listening attentively, she’s more likely to take your feedback seriously.

Listening well is an undervalued skill — and it’s more than just good manners. Focusing your full attention on the conversation can create a more pleasant, productive experience for everyone involved.

Tips for becoming a better listener

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The situation I shared above, when I could tell my colleague wasn’t listening, was just one example of a common occurrence at the office.

When I’m having a hectic day, stuck in back-to-back meetings and my inbox is out of control, I find myself falling short of 360° listening.

It happens — we’re all human.

The below are some techniques I use to improve my listening whenever I catch myself tuning out — hopefully you’ll find them helpful, too:

1. Look people in the eye. 

It might sound like common sense, but remember to close, shut down, or silence all possible distractions: computers, phones and any other devices that might grab your attention. Remember, a momentary distraction can totally throw off your concentration. Eliminate the temptation.

2. Wait until someone is truly done speaking to respond. 

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”-Stephen Covey, author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”

Sometimes it feels like the other person is just itching to chime in the moment we take a breath. Instead of listening, they’re deciding what to say next. Before you even consider your response, wait until your partner has finished. Thoughtful pauses are fine, and your responses will likely be more helpful and insightful.

3. Pay attention to nonverbal cues. 

This practice relies heavily on the first tip: eliminating all distractions. We can gather so much information from nonverbal cues, like whether someone is excited or exhausted, confident or uncertain. 

In fact, it’s estimated that 80% of communication relies on nonverbal signals. Hone in on those clues and don’t be afraid to address them directly. A colleague might say he’s prepared for the conference, but if his nervous energy suggests otherwise, you might want to dig deeper and explore what’s really going on.

4. Ask better questions. 

Constructive questions clarify the issues and can create deeper understanding for everyone. Even when someone asks a question, answer with a follow-up question to clarify what they really need.

5. Create space for reflection. 

Scheduling back-to-back meetings without time to reflect makes it difficult to process information. To listen more fully, block out some time on your daily calendar for reflection — times when you can think about previous discussions. Then when you head into your next meeting, you’re ready to share your full attention.

6. Notice the listening/speaking ratio. 

It’s worth considering how much you listen versus speak in a typical conversation. Scott Eblin, author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, says the ratio should be 2:1. Others say you should shoot for a more aspirational 80/20 breakdown

Either way, aim to listen more than you speak. If you’re not sure where you fit, try taking notes during your next meeting and track your own ratio.

Building a team of good listeners

When I look for new hires at Jotform, strong listeners are at the top of my list. Good listeners not only learn faster, but they work more effectively in teams — and they will truly hear the feedback of our 4.2 million users.

Good listeners also enhance the culture we’re trying to nurture: one in which people feel valued, engaged, and energized by their work. More than any other generation, millennial workers place a high value on communication and feedback. That’s why it’s more important than ever for listening to flow in all directions.

So, listen with curiosity, and with the intent to understand. Listen with the quiet confidence that you’ll have plenty of time to express yourself when it’s your turn to speak.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website

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