Want to get someone's attention? Listen

Getty ImagesGetty ImagesLast week I experienced something rare. I did an interview with someone who listened far more than she spoke. It was all the more unusual since I was supposed to be the one asking the questions.

I left with the feeling that I had been talking with a very smart and thoughtful person. I also left feeling flattered that she cared about my opinions.

I brought up this experience while talking to my friend Kibum, who is in his first year at law school. He was bemoaning the state of affairs in his classes where over-eager "gunners" reliably raise their hands each day to ensure that the professors choose them to answer questions in front of the class. (Clearly, nothing has changed since my law school days.) Kibum, who is of Korean descent but was raised primarily in the US, believes that Americans are obsessed with hearing ourselves speak. In Asia, he explained, there is so much emphasis on being deferential to your elders, that even when you are older, you naturally take more of a listening position in the conversation when you meet someone new. Though he admits that the Korean approach does sometimes stifle people (and schools there are now emphasizing presentation skills and speaking up), he finds that Americans are so concerned with looking smart that they sometimes they don't even properly respond to the flow of conversation.

All of this got me wondering why so much career advice -- including, I'll admit, some coming from me -- focuses on our ability to express our ideas, hone our speaking skills, and make ourselves heard. When I scan my shelves looking at books I've been sent to review, there are reams of titles on public speaking, storytelling and self-promotion, but few titles emphasize the importance of listening. And when I searched online to find experts on listening, I found few results, unless you count the references to teaching listening skills to children.

So why is it that we care about teaching children how to listen, but somehow as adults we become so preoccupied with hearing our own voices that we don't pay enough attention to one another? As the world gets noisier with new forms of messaging vying for our attention, I suspect this problem will only worsen.

To get a better handle on this, I spoke to Lindy Amos, a former actor who is director of coaching for TAI, a consulting firm that helps people improve their communication skills. Amos has worked with hundreds of people trying to improve their ability to communicate effectively and she says that people frequently come to her saying that the need to hone their message or that their subordinates are not listening. In most cases, she says, what people really need to do is work on their ability to listen -- and that means listening not just with the ears but with as many senses as possible. Lindy coaches her clients to stop focusing on themselves and to notice and react to what is happening around them. "It's about taking in all the cues - what people are saying, how they are sitting, specific details of the room - and then properly responding to that," she said. "It's about literally slowing down to see your audience,
inviting them into the dialog."

What do you think is going on with people's listening skills?

I've been pondering this problem for a while and here are some tips I gave the last time I visited this subject. Have you found any techniques to improve your listening skills?