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Be a World-Class Listener: What to Listen (And Watch) For

This lesson is a part of an audio course Be a World-Class Listener by Ben Butina, Ph.D.

So far, we've talked about two major obstacles that get in the way of good listening: hidden agendas and the wrong environment. In this lesson, we'll talk about the biggest obstacle of all. I call it excess mental bandwidth. Now, stay with me here. Pretend you're looking at a pie graph and the entire pie represents your total mental ability, your full mental bandwidth at a given moment. Listening to someone else talk the way we usually do might take up about a third of that pie. And that leaves about two-thirds of your mental bandwidth unoccupied. The brain, being a very efficient machine, won't just let that two-thirds bandwidth sit there unused. Instead, it's going to go off and start thinking about problems at home, or projects at work, or that time you got really embarrassed in the seventh grade. I don't know exactly what it is for you, but I do know that you've got plenty of it.

Even if you've thrown your distracting smartphone out the window, that excess mental bandwidth has the potential to distract you. And when it does, your attention is divided, and you're no longer listening effectively. And, believe me, the other person knows it. Just like you can tell when someone is distracted when they're supposed to be listening to you.

So, how do we deal with the problem of excess mental bandwidth?

The key is to use all of it. To dedicate 100% of your mental bandwidth to the task of listening. To do that, you're going to learn a new way of listening that requires you to listen and watch for three things at one time: content, meaning, and emotion.

First, you're listening for content. What is the other person actually saying? Word for word, what words are coming out of their mouth? You should be listening to the content so intently that you could repeat it word-for-word after the conversation. That's the level of concentration you're aiming for.

Second, meaning. What do all those words mean? What are the key points or messages the other person is trying to communicate. Again, you should be focusing so intently on this task that you could make a bulleted list of their key points right after they're done talking.

Third, emotion. What feelings is the speaker expressing in addition to the words they're speaking. Are they happy? Excited? Sad? Worried? If you're really concentrating, you should be able to label those emotions, at least in your own mind.

So you're listening for content, you're listening for meaning, and you're listening for emotion, and you're doing all three at the same time. Does that sound hard? Because it is. And it's supposed to be. If you're listening for all three, not only are you doing a great job of listening, you're occupying all of your mental bandwidth. This isn't a 1/3rd of your capacity job anymore. This is all neurons on deck. Distraction isn't a possibility for you because you're completely absorbed in the task of listening. You've entered a state of flow.

And, in case that doesn't sound hard enough, you also need to be listening with your eyes, which is my cheesy way of saying that you need to watch the other person's non-verbal behaviors as well as listen to the words they're speaking. What are their facial expressions like? How are they holding their bodies? How are they moving? What does this add to the content, meaning, and emotion of their words?

And there's one more thing to remember as you listen. You're going to let them finish completely before you respond in any way. That means you're going to leave a beat after they're done talking before you say or do anything.

So you're going to dedicate your full mental bandwidth to the job of listening for content, for meaning, and for emotion. You're going to listen with your eyes by watching the other person's facial expressions and body language, and you're going to let them finish by leaving a beat after they're done talking before you respond in any way.

This was a big lesson, right? So before we continue, I'm going to ask you to practice applying some of this by listening to this lesson again. This time, listen for content, meaning, and emotion. You won't be able to listen with your eyes because you can't see my facial expressions or body language, but you should be able to repeat my words, summarize my main points, and label my emotions. Listen to this lesson as many times it takes to be able to do that and, when you're ready, move to the next lesson about posture and non-verbal responses.

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Written by

Ben Butina, Ph.D.

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