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The Art of Being a Good Listener

People think they are good listeners, but the fact that almost every project suffers from miscommunication proves they are not. It took me eight months of being a consultant to realize that. Hopefully, it will take me only a few questions to convince you of it.

Do you remember the last time you had a heated discussion with a client? What were you thinking when the other party was talking? Were you trying to understand the client's point of view or thinking what you were going to say after he stopped talking?

To be a good listener you must hold back your opinions and thoughts and pay attention to the message being sent. You have to control the urge to interrupt and argue and truly believe in the value of what you are hearing. Listening is not easy because it's not a passive activity. It takes effort to suspend your needs and reactions.

The Art of Being Good Listener

When you know what you are going to say before the other person stops talking, it may result in dueling points of view. People get defensive, and acknowledging the other's position means surrendering. Then there is no communication at all. Most likely, that this kind of conversation ends without any result besides broken feelings.

Genuine listening means suspending your judgment and for a moment trying to put yourself in the other's shoes. The intent of their message cannot be changed by your feelings. You need to strictly separate the message from how you feel about receiving it. That's hard because is it's not natural for human beings.

Unfortunately, there is no pack of techniques that will transform you into an excellent listener. Only daily exercise will improve your listening skills. Personally I've been doing two exercises based on the conclusions I presented here.

  • I pay unrestricted attention not only to the message being sent but to the context around it. Who is talking? What is the intent of this communication? What is the purpose of this message? Who is receiving this message? What is my relationship with the speaker?
  • I try to remove all my feelings when I'm listening. Even if the message seems absurd, I try not to judge until I've understood everything the other person says. Also, I try to figure out why I'm feeling that way during the conversation.

To understand more and be a more effective listener I suggest reading the book "The Lost Art of Listening" by Michael P. Nichols. If you are a leader – or if you intend to be one – you may want to read this article Why Should Leaders Listen to Their Team? (And Why Is It so Hard?) as well.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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