It’s hard to get better at listening during conflict by practicing during conflict. If you want to be a better listener, practice outside of a difficult conversation. The stakes will be lower and it’ll be easier to be on top of your game. Here are three simple ways to practice being a good listener in everyday life.
Ski resorts don’t have a bunny slope for nothing. It’s smart and safer to practice new skills there before heading for the black diamond trails. Listening is just like that: Practice being a good listener in the easy situations and you’ll develop muscle memory for the tough ones.
When you can do the following without much effort in meetings, social gatherings, and at the dinner table, you’ll be a better listener during conflict. You’ll also be a far better negotiator, because good negotiators persuade with their ears instead of their mouths.
1. Practice not stealing someone’s story
I’ll let Enzo, the unforgettable canine narrator of the novel The Art of Racing in the Rain, describe what it means to steal someone’s story:
I cannot speak, so I listen very well. I never interrupt, I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own. People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another’s conversations constantly. It’s like having a passenger in your car who suddenly grabs the steering wheel and turns you down a side street. For instance, if we met at a party and I wanted to tell you a story about the time I needed to get a soccer ball in my neighbor’s yard but his dog chased me and I had to jump into a swimming pool to escape, and I began telling the story, you, hearing the words “soccer” and “neighbor” in the same sentence, might interrupt and mention that your childhood neighbor was Pelé, the famous soccer player, and I might be courteous and say, Didn’t he play for the Cosmos of New York? Did you grow up in New York? And you might reply that, no, you grew up in Brazil on the streets of Três Corações with Pelé, and I might say, I thought you were from Tennessee, and you might say not originally, and then go on to outline your genealogy at length. So my initial conversational gambit—that I had a funny story about being chased by my neighbor’s dog—would be totally lost, and only because you had to tell me all about Pelé. Learn to listen! I beg of you. Pretend you are a dog like me and listen to other people rather than steal their stories.
I am guilty of stealing people’s stories in this way, so this is one I’m going to work on over the coming months.
2. Practice listening without multitasking
Put down your pen. Take your fingers off the keyboard. Close the laptop lid. Turn over your book. Mute the television. Just listen for three minutes, or five. It is a special gift to give someone your full attention; most people rarely receive that gift.
As your daughter describes a drama at school, give her your entire attention for a few minutes (and don’t give her advice during that time — that’s not listening, that’s giving advice).
When your partner interrupts your game of Dots to read aloud an email he just got from his college roommate, tear yourself away from the game and give him your full attention.
When a colleague drones on during a department meeting, stop doodling or having that side conversation. It is very good practice to listen when you don’t feel like it, because during conflict, you may often not feel like it.
3. Practice listening without your answer running
When you listen with your answer running, you’ve stopped listening. Listening is not, as approachability speaker Scott Ginsburg says, just waiting to talk. You may look like you’re listening, but really, you’re inside your head, thinking about your response.
If you’re in the habit of listening with your answer running, it will take some practice and commitment to change the habit. Start by noticing when you’ve gone inside your head and begun formulating your response, and bring yourself back to the other person. Keep doing that, even if you discover you can’t sustain it for more than a few seconds. It is like meditation in that way — you are training yourself to stay present and it will take some practice to undo well-worn habits.
If you’d like a reminder of this to post next to your computer, download the image from this article: The Secret Good Mediators Know About Listening
There are many ways to practice becoming a good listener, of course. I chose these three because they are about giving your undivided attention to someone else. They are about showing up fully for what they’re saying. They’re about giving of yourself without any expectation they’ll do the same for you. These are the places that really good listening comes from.