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How to Shut the Hell Up and Really Listen

shut-up-and-listenIn July 2010, I moved to Biloxi, Miss., to write about Hurricane Katrina. It had been five years since the storm devastated the Gulf Coast. I wanted to understand the people who had stayed, find out why they were doing what they were doing and tell their stories.

Along the way, I learned one great secret about listening, and how to do it really well — great listeners put themselves in unfamiliar situations.

Ever traveled in a foreign city by tour bus? You might remember how you spent the trip — pressed against the glass, pointing at the sights, asking questions. Everything you were seeing was new. Your view wasn't clouded by preconceptions. You were legitimately curious about everything in front of you.

Think about the look that was on your face on that bus. That's the look of someone really paying attention.

That's the look you want on your face when you're listening — whether to a coworker, a client or a friend.

Every day — at the office and outside of it — we run into dozens of situations where we're asked to listen. Many of those situations are routine. But things that are routine are familiar, and often mindless. They're tasks you can execute without thinking, questions you can answer without listening.

When you're put into a situation where you really have to listen, you need to break that routine. Good listeners are active. If you're listening and no questions are popping up in your head, you're probably not listening well enough. Listening and curiosity are linked.

When you're really listening, you need to be that person on the tour bus — fully immersed and totally focused on discovering something new.

That is, after all, why we listen — to discover new things.

So to put yourself in the best position to listen, put yourself into a space that's unfamiliar. It's tough to really listen well in your office for a reason — you're too comfortable. You've got too many distractions. Sitting behind a desk, you're not really in a position to be curious.

Here's what I've learned this fall at the University of Missouri, where I'm working with journalism and business students. Instead of hosting typical office hours, I've invited students to meet me for a beer at a local bar, The Heidelberg. It's right off campus, and they've got these booths with high backs, so it's a place that feels both comfortable and private. When students come up to my office, they feel like they're talking to me on my turf. At the Berg, they feel like they're on equal ground, and they're more likely open up.

When I was in Biloxi, I interviewed people where they felt comfortable. Sometimes, that meant an office. Sometimes, that meant a table at Waffle House.

But to be a good listener, and to ask the questions I needed to ask, I needed to get away from the usual places and get to a place where my subjects felt okay to talk. That's where they were able to say what they wanted to say, and where I was able to do my best listening.

So three takeaways:

  • Break the routine. It doesn't have to be a big thing. Maybe it's just a matter of holding meetings while standing up. Maybe it's chatting with a coworker in an unfamiliar place. Whatever the case, remember that when you're comfortable, it's easy to zone out. Get uncomfortable.
  • Ask questions. Lots of questions. If you're not asking questions, you're probably not listening very well. Be curious, and be active while listening.
  • Follow up. Listening is only the first step. What you're really trying to do is create a conversation. That's when real breakthroughs happen.


Image courtesy of Flickr user L2F1.

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