The secret to effective communication is active listening. And effective communication is the secret to healthy relationships — both personal and professional.
Have you ever been told that you don’t understand, even though you think you really do understand? Have you ever had a person tell you something over and over again and wondered why they felt the need to tell you again? If so, the reason is because that person did not feel truly understood. When we do not feel as though the listener understands us, we want to explain it again in order to achieve understanding.
Once we feel understood, we feel supported in the relationship. Often times we fail to differentiate between hearing someone’s words and understanding someone’s words. We often intend to communicate understanding by saying “I hear you,” “I understand,” or “I got it,” only to find the speaker feels misunderstood, unheard, and unsupported.
One of the most effective ways to improve communication and relationships is to practice active listening and reflecting feelings. Active listening is the practice of intentionally listening to the speaker, asking clarifying questions, and confirming what you understand with the speaker. When you are practicing active listening, you are not waiting to speak. You are trying to understand fully. Most of us have found ourselves waiting to speak when a good response comes to mind while another person is speaking and we feel eager for them to stop talking so we can express our point.
We all want to be understood — and the problem occurs when both people in a conversation want to be understood at the same time, which happens almost always. You can’t control whether the other person tries to understand you, but you can control how you try to understand the other person. And you can control putting your desire to be understood on the back burner. This won’t guarantee that the other person will reciprocate and try to understand what you are saying, but people are more likely to be interested in what you have to say once they feel that you have understood them first.
Active listening is a bigger challenge than it might sound because we can process words over 3 times faster than we speak, and our brains want to fill the downtime with thoughts. Practicing mindfulness can help you develop the habit of focusing on the present moment — find essentials on mindfulness for lawyers here. And we all have opportunities to practice as we find ourselves in just about any conversation. Focus on these 5 actions:
- Commit to paying attention. Put your desire to be understood on the back burner. Focus your current energy on understanding rather than being understood. Notice the tone, volume, and intonation of the words you’re hearing. Try to identify the emotions being expressed through those words. Notice when you assume something. Notice when you do not understand something.
- Listen and withhold judgment. Listen to the speaker with the goal to understand what is said and what feeling is being expressed — not to analyze its substance from other angles, which can be nearly instinctive for lawyers. Notice the tone, volume, and intonation of the words you’re hearing. Try to identify the emotions being expressed through those words. Notice when you assume something. Notice when you do not understand something. Avoid interrupting — but also recognize when interrupting with a quick question can clarify an important element at a key moment for your understanding.
- Ask clarifying questions. You’ll likely have questions if you’re listening, and asking them will both demonstrate that you’re listening and guide you to understanding. Open-ended questions that begin with “What?” and “How?” can prompt new details that you really need to understand. There’s also a role for closed questions, and being mindful about the question types you choose to use will help you focus on understanding.
- Confirm your understanding. A closed question can help you paraphrase what you think you understand and give the speaker the opportunity to correct your understanding. PRO TIP: Don’t follow the commonly suggested “What I’m hearing is …” formula to confirm your understanding — it can come across as self-centering and divisive, so try “It sounds like …” (or “it seems like,” or “it feels like” — and a hat tip to Chris Voss, FBI hostage negotiator for 24 years who shared the distinction as a guest on Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast episode When Work Takes Over Your Life).
- Validate feelings. Use the steps above to try to identify a label for the emotions you think the speaker is experiencing if they haven’t already. Acknowledge the difficulty of negative feelings without jumping to suggest solutions with simple statements like “That’s so difficult.”
Be patient with yourself as you practice. This is not the natural way in which we communicate with others — especially in a disagreement. It won’t go perfectly, and that’s fine.
Practice these steps during conversations that are not heated or important. Practicing on mundane interactions will build up your skills and confidence so you can use these skills when it truly counts.
Like other soft skills, communication skills can help you respond to stress more effectively. Find more on how identifying strengths and opportunities to develop them can help you feel more positive as you encounter threats here.