That’s right. Shut up.
I’m not being rude. I’m trying to help you with your job search and career advancement.
A lot of job search and career advice is focused on what you, the job-seeker, need to say. How to answer interview questions, what to say when networking, perfecting your elevator pitch, etc. But what a lot of that advice does not cover is the other half of this communication—listening.
In order to interview, network, and interact with people (and get the results you want), you need to learn how to listen. Good listening skills are so important that they not only help recent graduates find and maintain jobs but also help higher-up executives to be better leaders.
It is through listening that you’re able to connect with other people, understand issues, and thus effectively solve problems. Your words aren’t going to hold much weight if they don’t have the knowledge and context to back them up.
Also, people don’t want to be talked at. They want to have a conversation, give and take. Simply meeting someone in your industry and throwing your elevator pitch at them won’t get you a job. Just like conducting an informational interview with someone won’t do you any good if you’re not listening to their story and asking the right follow-up questions.
The thing is, we’ve learned to focus on the other side of things. We want to ask the right questions, give the right answers, and make the best point. We’ve lost the ability to really listen to other people without our thoughts flowing to our own agenda.
So, how can you become a better listener?
No, really. Shut up. This is way harder than it sounds. A lot of the time, when we’re listening to someone, we’re really thinking about what we’re going to say afterwards. Don’t worry, this is something that everyone does.
There are a number of reasons why we can’t give our full attention to the speaker—we have a really great point to make, we’re anxious about sounding smart or funny, we want to react to what they’re telling us. But the thing is, when you’re half-focused on what you’re going to say next, you miss parts of what the other person is saying.
To break this habit, try out this exercise:
Find a willing partner and find a quiet place to sit. Then, ask them to tell you about something that happened to them that day. Here’s where it gets difficult—you are not allowed to say anything. You can’t respond at all. Even after the person is finished with their story. You simply end the activity by thanking them for telling you the story and that’s it.
This exercise takes a while to get used to. You’re going to want to comment, comfort, and/or share your own story with that other person, but you can’t.
This forces you to completely stop thinking about your side of the conversation and teaches you to listen to what another person is saying just for the sake of listening.
Put away electronics
I don’t know about you, but my phone is basically a permanent extension of my arm. It’s always there and I’m constantly straining to see if I have a blinking light notifying me of a text or social media announcement. Talk about something getting in the way of my listening!
There is no way I can give anyone my full attention when I am looking for a notification on my phone or simultaneously watching a muted television show. I don’t even keep my laptop open when I’m conducting an interview these days; trying to type while listening to the other person or resisting the urge to check my email is nearly impossible. Now, I close my computer and record the call so that I can really focus on what the other person is saying. This leads to a much better understanding of what they’re saying, better follow-up questions, and a more in-depth look into their career stories.
To be a better listener, you have to rid yourself of electronic distractions. Turn off your phone, close your laptop, switch off the TV—turn off anything that might distract you from the conversation.
Distractions don’t always come in the form of electronics. Your mind or body can be their own forms of distraction. Sometimes your mind just won’t stop (Did you feed the cat? Should you have gotten a cat in the first place?)
If you have too much energy buzzing around your body, it’s hard to sit still and pay attention to whoever is talking.
That’s why exercise actually helps you to listen better. Find time to incorporate active movement into your life to calm your mind and body and prepare you to devote your attention to the other person(s).
Summarizing is a great way to be a better listener because it helps you solidify information in your mind. Sometimes, even though you’re actively paying attention to a person, it’s hard to grasp what they’re saying. Repeating what someone says back to them can help you to form a stronger picture of what they’re talking about.
Again, shut up (or don’t be afraid of the pause)
In point number one, I recommended an exercise that forbids you from ever saying anything at all. Now, I am applying this “shut up” rule to a conversation. You can’t be completely silent when having a conversation. At some point, you’re going to have to talk.
BUT here’s a secret. That moment is probably not as soon as you think it is. I think this is the best piece of advice that I have ever gotten when it comes to doing interviews. It actually came for Katherine Schwarzenegger when she was talking to me about writing her book, I Just Graduated… Now What?
She said that, when interviewing someone, it’s important to just wait a while before you start talking—even if there’s silence on the other end. You can’t be afraid of the pause. A lot of the time, if you wait, the other person will continue speaking and you’ll get to hear way more than if you had jumped in.
Of course, you have to use your judgment here. Don’t make things awkward by never giving a response or asking the next question. Just don’t rush into it. Use the control you mastered in the exercise suggested in point number one. Listen and wait.
If something a person says brings up a point in your mind, jot it down quickly, then return your full attention to the rest of their sentence. That way you can devote all of your attention to them without the fear of forgetting what you wanted to add.
Improving your listening skills will help you better ingest the information you’re being given, dissect it, and then give better responses, ask better questions, and improve your communication with everyone.
Give it a try. Try to take the focus of the conversation off of you and place it on the other person instead. Then, after you’ve improved your listening skills, use all of the extra information you’ll be gathering to ask better questions and give better answers.