It's one thing to ask good questions — it's another to really take on board the answers. You can often be distracted by your own thoughts, feelings and opinions and so tend to hear what you want to hear or, more usually, what you expect to hear.
You're often thinking about your next move or what you should say next, or you're trying to second guess where the other party might be leading you. To listen effectively you need to suspend these internal thoughts and give your full attention to the speaker. Only then can you really hear what they're saying.
Active listening means paying attention to the speaker — both to verbal and non-verbal cues. For example, if you see them look down or appear uncomfortable in some way while saying 'That's all I can tell you at the moment' you might deduce that they are withholding information.
This type of active listening alerts you to the opportunity for a well constructed open or probing question, to gather the missing information. If you're not listening actively, it can be easy to miss signs like these.
It is vital to make sure you don't let your attention wander. Important pieces of information can be missed if you are not alert and engaged. This can lead to misunderstandings later on, or possibly embarrassing situations where you appear to have forgotten something you have been told.
One way to help you concentrate during a business conversation is to ask the speaker questions. Not only will this help you to guide the conversation where you want it to go and at the pace you want, it can also ensure your mind is focused on the subject at hand.
Confirm your understanding
Active listening should ultimately lead to a complete understanding of what another person has said. You can do this by feeding back to them, in your own words, your understanding of what they've said.
An easy way to do this is to clarify, paraphrase or summarise. Examples of summary question in these cases include:
- 'So what you're saying is...?'
- 'So what you need from me is...?'
- 'So in summary what we've agreed is...?'
It's usually a good idea to check your understanding regularly during a conversation. You can paraphrase or summarise:
- when the other party has provided a large chunk of information
- whenever something is unclear to you
- when moving to a new topic or area for discussion
- at the end of the discussion.
Clarification is also a useful tool when the other party seems to be asking for a lot of information. If their questions are poorly structured, too broad or ambiguous, you might give away too much information by answering them straight away. It's often a good idea to clarify a question before you answer it.