Active listening sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it’s not that easy for any of us, even experienced negotiators. In
a previous post, my colleagues talked about the importance of really listening to the other side and what they are saying when you are engaged in a negotiation process. This approach to listening is called “active listening” and it is one of the important skills needed for effective communication. Active listening is a skill set effective negotiators can easily develop with practice.
When you actively listen to another person speak, you give the speaker your undivided attention and listen closely to what the speaker is saying. You look at the speaker directly, nod and smile, and use your own body language and gestures to convey your attention. You are fully present in the moment. Your posture is open and inviting and you encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like “yes” and “uh huh”.
As an active listener, your role is to understand what is being said. This includes both the substance and the context of the speaker’s message. As you listen for content, also listen for their choice of words, tone of voice, and the level of emotion their words convey. Listen with your eyes to their body language. If the speaker goes on for awhile, you may want to take notes. As you actively listen you may also begin to hear what the speaker is not saying. This may be as important as the message the speaker is sharing. Do not interrupt the speaker with counter arguments or comments and consciously allow room for long pauses and moments of silence. Give the speaker the time he or she needs to say everything that they need to say.
When the speaker is finished, ask permission to share your understanding of what you just heard him say. Using your own words, reflect what has been said by paraphrasing their message: “What I’m hearing is . . .” “It sounds like you are saying . . .” Using neutral language, restate the message in a way that accurately reflects both the context, content, and emotion of what you heard including key points. If necessary, respectfully ask non-threatening, clarifying questions to explore the nuances of their message such as “what do you mean when you say . . . ?” or “is this what you mean?” Do not insert any of your own comments, characterizations, or judgments when paraphrasing what the speaker just said. Instead, summarize as best you can the speaker’s message to convey to him that you heard what he said and now have an accurate understanding of his message. If appropriate, express your appreciation for the speaker’s willingness to share his perspective with you. Then ask the speaker whether you have accurately restated what he said. If not, continue to ask clarifying questions until you reach a shared understanding of the speaker’s message.
Now it is your turn to either state your own position or share your response to what the speaker just said. While you are speaking, the first speaker should actively listen to what you are saying, giving you time to either state your own position and/or share your response to what the first speaker just said. When you are done speaking, the first speaker will paraphrase your message, asking clarifying questions until they have accurately summarized what you just said. Then it is their turn to speak and you once again actively listen to what they are saying.
Why does active listening seem easy when it is actually difficult? When you actively listen to another person speak, you have to focus your full attention on the other person and tune out any and all distractions. Sometimes the distractions are external, i.e. the body language or verbal reactions of someone else at the negotiating table. However, more often than not it is our own internal distractions that prevent us from actively listening to someone else. Internal distractions include our own thoughts, emotions and the mental chatter that comes up as we listen to what the speaker is saying. It takes self-discipline and practice to continue to listen while someone else speaks and not be distracted by our own reactions to their words or our need to prepare an argument in response. To actively listen requires you to set aside whatever external and internal distractions arise and to remain truly present in the moment, attuned to the person across the negotiating table, intentionally focused on what he or she is trying to say.
Here’s an exercise to get you started. The next time you sit down for coffee with a friend, ask them how they are or what is going on with them. See if you can just listen to them for five minutes without saying anything in response. Let them speak, make eye contact, and give them non-verbal cues to encourage them to continue sharing their story with you. Do not interrupt or offer any comments other than words of encouragement to continue speaking. Notice if your mind starts to wander and any thoughts or feelings that come up for you, let them go, then bring your focus and attention back to your friend. Remember, it is their time to speak, your time to listen, and your chance to truly understand what is going on with them.
Active listening takes time, energy and intention but is one of the fundamental skills of an effective negotiator and well worth taking the time to practice.