How to Actively Listen for Fun and Profit
For a social engineer, active listening is one of the critical keys for the success of all engagements. We listen to obtain information on our targets, to understand what is needed for an engagement, and for receiving instructions on completing assignments. When it comes to every aspect of our life, how well we listen can impact how effective we are in our job and can improve or damage our relationships with others. Listening is the most fundamental component of interpersonal communication skills.
Active listening is defined, according to skillsyouneed.com, as actively listening. It is fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively hearing the message of the speaker. It involves listening with all senses. John M. Grohol, Psy.D, adds to this in his article, saying that active listening is all about building rapport, understanding, and trust. It requires the listener to understand, interpret and evaluate what they are being told. When we are actively listening it tells the speaker that what they have to say matters.
There are many barriers that can impede our listening ability. We can be biased on the subject matter, we might not care about the subject matter being discussed, or we might not like the speaker. Your health can influence your listening ability, and if we are pressed for time or are in a noisy place, all can impede our listening ability. We also have an increased amount of distractions and stresses in life, which make active listening difficult to do. On top of that, the speed at which we think is greater than the speed at which we speak, meaning there’s a good chance our minds will wander during a conversation. Finally, we are also inefficient listeners; according to the book “Active Listening” and a study at the University of Missouri, we only remember 25-50% of what we hear. With so much stacked against us are we doomed to failure or can we improve our active listening skills and in return make ourselves better?
The good news is yes, we can improve ourselves with practice. The beauty of it is that most of what we need to do, we may already be doing.
Active listening involves both verbal and non-verbal responses, combined in a way that tells the speaker that we are interested in what they have to say.
Some non-verbal responses are smiling, eye contact, posture, reflection/mirroring, and not being distracted. When you smile, do a slight nod of the head, and have direct eye contact, it indicates that you are listening. By sitting properly and leaning slightly forward, your body will appear to be focused on the speaker. Reflecting the facial expressions that are used by the speaker can indicate empathy, but be careful. If you forcefully mimic facial expressions you can appear to be mocking the speaker. If you are distracted, perhaps by fidgeting with your cell phone, it will send a signal to the speaker that you aren’t interested in what they are saying.
Some verbal responses are positive reinforcement, remembering, questioning, reflection, clarification, and summarization. When it comes to using words for positive reinforcement avoid being repetitive such as constantly saying things like “yes”. It’s better to explain why you agree with a certain point. Some techniques to help you remember include taking notes, repeating (reflecting) some key points and asking relevant questions, even asking to clarify something the speaker said. At the end of the conversation summarizing in your own words what was said can show that you were paying attention and gives the speaker a chance to correct you.
For this month’s newsletter, we asked our staff to talk about their favorite techniques or points of focus as they relate to active listening, and here’s what they had to say.
For me personally I rely heavily on body language for active listening, putting myself in that frame of indicated listening, the head tilt, the proper amount of eye contact, the head nodding. Even if I’m not keenly interested in the subject, it puts me in the proper frame of mind to begin listening fully. Although you might not consider a need for body language on the phone, I’ve found that it’s very helpful to keep your mind focused on the conversation at hand. Training yourself to respond actively to someone’s body language takes a bit of time, trial and error, and serious research, but it can be effective in both developing relationships and actually helping you get more out of conversations. To really actively listen, the best thing to do is to be actually interested, but if it comes down to it and you really aren’t, fake it till you make it. Using active listening techniques can very politely enable you to get through an uninteresting topic, and perhaps leave them feeling pleased for having spoken to you. Plus, it’s very good practice and gives your mind something to work with even as it tries so very hard to distract you.
We joke that my super power is to be able to not focus with amazing precision, and it’s true! I had a good friend and counselor teach me that active listening is a full brain activity. As I listen to a person, I make sure to ask questions to keep my mind engaged and away from wandering, and I try to rephrase and repeat key points back to the person talking. That way if I’m misunderstanding a point, the speaker has an opportunity to correct my misunderstanding and make their point clear. After I am done with the conversation, I go back through the key points and write them down if they were particularly interesting or if I think I might forget them, as well as anything I need to follow up on or look into more deeply. The key to communication is a common language between the individuals and making sure that terms and concepts are understood. It is my responsibility as a listener to make sure I’m understanding the speaker correctly, and the responsibility of the speaker to ensure they are communicating clearly.
Have you ever experienced this – your spouse starts a conversation and because you were in deep thought, you missed the opening statements? Then you must decide whether to let them keep going or have them start over? For a long time, I chose to let her keep going to the end and if I couldn’t figure out what she was saying I would ask her to repeat. Boy, that was a mistake. After years of doing that, I finally learned to pause her right away and start over. That way I can actually listen and get the whole conversation. To be an active listener and get the whole conversation you need to be at full attention from the beginning of the conversation. I’ve always thought of myself as being a good listener (when I’ve been listening from the beginning) I got the eye contact down, the smile, the head nod, the providing of verbal feedback, proper mirroring, but then this happened; my son was telling me about his Legos and went on for at least 10-15 minutes and then he asked, “What do you think, Dad?” I suddenly realized I wasn’t listening anymore. Of course, I covered myself with, “I think that’s awesome.” But my wife caught me and whispered, “Nice save.” So, it’s also important not to let yourself get distracted or let your mind wonder, even if the topic doesn’t interest you as much. To keep your attention, use reflection, repeat some of what’s being said, but not too much or that will give away that you’re not that interested or not really paying attention. Doing this you can avoid making the mistakes I made.
For me, active listening is an ongoing challenge. When you don’t have the same communication style as another person, there will always be disconnects in how well you understand others. I’ve literally felt my eyes glaze over when I feel like someone is taking “all day” to get to their point. But I’ve also learned the value in becoming a good listener in both my professional and personal life – if you can make a person feel valued for what they have to say, it significantly increases your connection and how you can influence them. That’s not meant to sound creepy – it’s a very important soft skill to master. The one thing that helped me most in active listening was to spend less time thinking about what I was going to say in response to the person. The less I focused on having a witty or insightful comeback, the better I was able to focus on what was actually being said. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who was so anxious to respond that they couldn’t help but interrupt? I never want to make another person feel that way about speaking with me.
Active listening used to be much easier for us, after I learned about nonverbal I found myself constantly processing what I saw. Mid conversation I would see the person flash sadness or anger or blade their hips away and start to think and look for other signs. That of course, ruined active listening. Eventually I had to teach myself to use what I saw to fuel what I heard. Let me explain. So if the person I am talking to is describing a sad story and they show something other than sadness I have had to train myself to not focus on that but on the words and only process the things that back that story up. This is just when I feel I need to be actively listening, there are times when I would rather use nonverbal, then that rule goes out the window. Either way, I have found that active listening can increase my awareness and ability to be a great social engineer.
As you can see, active listening is essential for us at Social-Engineer to be successful at our job, and in every aspect of our lives. It takes practice and patience. Can we improve? Always. So, what active listening techniques will you use?
Written By: The Social-Engineer Team