You can tell you are in the presence of an exceptional listener when they seem to know what you are thinking and feeling. It’s as if they are one part telepath and one part empath – simultaneously reading your mind and sensing your feelings. And the best part is that you don’t feel violated about either. This is because they aren’t reading or sensing – they are reflecting. The best listeners are mirrors reflecting your actions, words and feelings back to you. It’s as if you are talking to yourself, but without feeling crazy.
Why should you care about exceptional listening? First, exceptional listeners are also great at building relationships. Dale Carnegie wrote about this in his book, How to Make Friends and Influence People. Second, exceptional listeners are keen negotiators and mediators. You can’t negotiate a deal or a truce if you don’t understand what the other person wants. You must listen without judgement to really understand what someone is thinking and feeling. Finally, exceptional listeners are trusted and respected. If you want to be trusted and respected, learn how to become an exceptional listener.
How do exceptional listeners become such good mirrors of our actions, words and feelings? First, they observe your body language, and if appropriate, they imitate those same non-verbal cues. If you cross your legs, they will cross their legs. If you fold your arms, they will fold their arms. If you show an indecent or vulgar hand gesture, an exceptional listener will react in a calm and non-judgemental way. The trick is to not get emotionally invested, only mirror the body language that shows you understand. Avoid mirroring any behavior that shows you’ve lost neutrality.
Second, the exceptional listener parrots the substantive parts of your message. They often nod and say “Uh-huh” to show noncommittal acknowledgment so you feel safe to proceed – to tell all. The exceptional listener does not try to change your message, nor do they judge your message. They don’t interrupt you. And they certainly don’t try to fix you or your problem. However, the cathartic act of venting or speaking aloud your issue often helps you to reveal a solution yourself. This is where the exceptional listener shines. When you thank them for resolving your problem, they quickly remind you that it was in fact you that solved the problem. Exceptional listeners do not take credit – they remain squarely neutral in the conversation.
Finally, the exceptional listener genuinely cares about you. When they mirror your joy, sorrow, or consternation, they really do empathize. Although they won’t reflect back emotions with the same intensity, and perhaps some emotions are avoided altogether, like anger, you can be sure they accept your feelings as genuine and valid. The exceptional listener will, by words or action, let you know it is okay to feel the way you are feeling. It is neither right or wrong – it just is. The exceptional listener allows you to process those feelings in your time and way. They won’t try to fix or adjust your attitude. That is your responsibility, if such an adjustment is needed.
So, you want to be an exceptional listener? The good news is that there are clear skills you can learn. Additionally, these same skills will make all aspects of your life more enjoyable. If you have the following personality traits, you might find the path even easier. First, do you live in the moment – are you present? Exceptional listeners are not distracted by what they had for lunch or what they are going to have for dinner. They listen to you like you are the only person in the world. Second, do you give a damn? Exceptional listeners genuinely care about other people, so narcissists will be challenged to be even marginal listeners. Finally, you are not a meddler. Exceptional listeners do not meddle, are non-judgemental, and do not try to fix. If you like to tinker with other people’s problems you might find exceptional listening out of your reach.
Here are some simple and immediate things you can do to become an exceptional listener. First, think of yourself as a mirror during your next conversation. Mirrors don’t talk, they reflect. Say very little. Be present, don’t think about what your are going to be doing next. Don’t think about solving the person’s problem. Listen. Second, watch, like a mirror, their body language and then mirror back any appropriate cues, like leg or arm crossing, non-vulgar hand gestures, and facial expressions. Nod in agreement and throw in the occasional “Uh-huh” and “I see.” Finally, mirror back that their emotions are valid and that you genuinely empathize. That doesn’t mean you get angry if they are angry. It doesn’t even mean you agree that their emotions are helpful or not. Just empathize. That’s it.
Report back here, in the comments, with how they reacted and how you felt about being an exceptional listener.