By Allison O'Brien
Have you ever found yourself becoming increasingly impatient in a conversation or a meeting and then realized later that you missed something important or made incorrect assumptions? I know I have! Perhaps like me, your urgency to interrupt, correct the speaker, or offer up another idea builds, and you lose focus on what the speaker is saying. You may even stop listening and disengage all together because you’re simply disinterested.
Listening is an art. It’s also a science. And the best listening requires patience, commitment and self-awareness.
Most people assess their own listening with a value judgement. They often pride themselves on being a “good” listener or lament the fact that they are a “bad” listener. In the latter case, some may jump on the internet searching for tips to improve their listening skills.
When you Google “Tips to Improve Listening” or “How to Become a Better Listener” dozens of articles come up with lists of similar suggestions:
If you think about it, most of these suggestions give the speaker the appearance that you are listening but there is nothing here that recommends how to be a better listener. Making eye contact and repeating what was said does not mean you heard and fully comprehend what was said. What’s missing is:
Developing greater self-awareness of your own unique listening preferences and habits.
Unfortunately, self-awareness never makes the list. Knowing what engages or challenges our attention is the first step in preparing for the most valuable interactions and creating the best outcomes.
Research has proven that listening is a cognitive process in which individuals develop preferences or habitual listening behavior over time. Our listening habits determine what we pay attention to, to what and when we disengage, and also influence what we think about, care about, and talk about.
When we get to know our listening preferences, we develop Listening Intelligence, the ability to adjust our listening to the people, context, and situation at hand. We can then do a better job of staying present and engaged and ultimately expand our understanding of the situation.
Understanding brain physiology can help as well. Most people speak at a rate of roughly 125 words per minute. However, our brains have the capacity to process more than 700 words per minute. This discrepancy between rate of speech and thought is often a contributing factor in our ability to stay attentive and focused, especially when the content of the conversation is not in alignment with our default listening biases.
In just under a decade of helping people become more agile listeners, I’ve observed that if our listening preferences are not satisfied, we become less engaged, which causes us to lose patience in communication and conversation. This presents in different ways in different types of listeners.
Let’s talk about the four listening habits identified in the research: Connective, Reflective, Analytical and Conceptual, and what this means for levels of engagement, patience, and what can be done when attention starts to wane, and frustration begins to mount.
Connective listeners focus on the human component of the interaction.
Their motivation to listen is often determined by their attitude towards the speaker and those involved or impacted by the discussion. They’re likely to shut down their listening if they don’t resonate with the speaker. Alternatively, if they do, they may feel the need to step in on behalf of the speaker or the audience.
Connective listeners are perceived as patient by others. They tend to be a “caretaker” in conversation and will let people finish without interrupting. Their encouraging and supportive body language often gives the appearance of active engagement, though this doesn't necessarily mean they are actually listening. They will often let people continue to speak, despite feeling impatient on the inside. They do a very good job hiding it in their facial expression or body language. As such, speakers generally believe they’re listening and feel heard and satisfied in conversation with them.
Tip: You may be overcompensating to show attention by excessive head nodding, utterances of agreement and encouragement, or constant eye contact. This can be perceived as interested and understanding; in which case the speaker believes they have conveyed their message thoroughly. If you are a Connective listener, check in with yourself. You’ll notice when you’ve lost interest and you’ve shut off the speaker and the message. When you find yourself nodding but not listening, take inventory of your body language and adjust if needed. Ask a fact-finding question to re-engage.
Reflective listeners filter through their personal database of interests and experiences. They will tend to tune out if they don’t perceive the information applies to them.
If they are really interested in the content or it's very important to them, Reflective listeners may be very patient, soaking in every relevant detail. However, they can become impatient when the content isn’t relevant to their role or interesting to them. They won't hesitate to interrupt and let you know that they don't need to be informed about something, that they have nothing to contribute or where they're not needed. They may also interrupt if they know the answer and believe they can help move things forward and save time.
Tip: If you resonate with Reflective listening, as you feel your patience waning, and you either believe you know the answer and/or you don’t see personal relevance, this is your cue to get curious. Your impatience and readiness to move on just might be the indication that you are missing something important. Ask yourself, “What do I need to learn to either support or refute my thinking?” By slowing down and redirecting, you may find you have an unanswered question or realize you can contribute and inspire the conversation in a way that draws you back in.
Analytical listeners care about data, evidence and accuracy. They will likely withdraw when the conversation becomes more abstract or lacks a specific focus.
Analytical listeners often become increasingly impatient and intolerant when speakers aren’t practical, don't get to the point or back up what they're saying. They will interrupt, calling out discrepancies and/or to correct a speaker. However, they will be very patient listeners and learners when speakers share their thinking in a concise way using evidence (that can be sourced upon request) versus how they feel about the content or the discussion point.
Tip: If Analytical listening sounds like your preferred habit and you find yourself frustrated and losing patience because you perceive the conversation is too abstract or you see the decision as clear cut, but deliberation is still going on, consider pulling back to observe the situation with a greater appreciation for the gray versus what seems black or white. If your immediate response is “No, that’s not right,” try to replace it with “Could there be something more?” Great solutions and possibilities may unfold when you allow time for ideation and discussion.
Conceptual listeners have an ear for future possibilities, potentiality and patterns. Without room for fresh thinking and creative problem-solving they will tend to grow bored and disconnect.
In general, Conceptual listeners self-report they quite often struggle to listen patiently and are aware of their tendency to interrupt. They want to contribute and love to brainstorm, bouncing ideas around. If they are inspired by something that was said, they will feel an urgency to contribute and speak and share. They may not only interrupt with words but can also indicate their urgency to speak with their body language. If the conversation doesn't allow for fresh thinking or brainstorming, they may become bored, and will likely check out.
Tip: As natural idea-generator, if you feel an urgency to chime in or interrupt, pause. Don’t speak just yet. Ask yourself, “Is right now the time to share my thought?” Internally vet your thinking and your ideas as the conversation develops and unfolds. In the pause, you may find that what you were going to say is actually not valuable in the moment, but it may be once you’ve given it more time to think through and process. If the idea is a good one, it will still be there in 5 minutes or even the next day.
As we learn more about the science of listening, it has become increasingly clear that “good or bad” is an oversimplification of a very complex process. Improving our listening requires that we develop acute awareness of our own unique obstacles, specifically which situations cause us to succumb to common attention pitfalls, and then apply intentional effort, discipline and agility to adjust on the fly.
The next time you find yourself frustrated or impatient in conversation, ask yourself, “What am I focusing on and what shift can I make right now to be a better listener in this moment?”