We talk a lot about the foundational skills that help us succeed at work: prioritization, time management, public speaking, teamwork, and mindful communication. But we’d do well to talk more about our listening skills, too.
The New York Times recently ran a guide on being a better listener in their Smarter Living section, and one particular part caught our attention — the part about how much we can benefit professionally from really hearing, and thus learning from others.
Reid Hoffman, the billionaire venture capitalist and co-founder of LinkedIn, told the Times that a top quality he looks for in new hires is what he calls an “infinite learning curve.” In other words, people who are always listening and learning about new areas so they can innovate in them. “If you show interest and energy, people will respond and share what they know and how they learned it,” writes Adam Bryant, who interviewed Hoffman. “That may seem like a statement of the obvious, but surprisingly few people act on it.”
Ben Dattner, Ph.D., a New York City-based executive coach, agrees. “It’s important to think about listening in a broader framework — one that includes being open, assimilating, accommodating, and revising your existing theories based on the information around you,” he tells Thrive Global.
Dattner says by working to actively hear our colleagues and understand them, we can ensure that we’re reaping the benefits of the “never-ending learning curve” that Hoffman talks about. In addition to building meaningful relationships at work, we can use our listening skills to take advantage of the free educational experience offered to us. Here are 3 expert-backed tips to perfect your listening skills:
Be open to differing opinions
In any workplace, it’s only natural for your opinion to differ from that of a colleague’s, and Dattner says it’s important to remind yourself that that’s okay. “If someone taps the beat of a certain song on a table, you may be hearing a completely different song than the one they have in mind,” he says, and learning from others often comes down to listening to their song, and explaining yours, too. Dattner adds that mindful communication is about listening to your own opinion and listening to others’, and accepting that we can learn different lessons from each one.
Be aware of how your brain “hears”
Dattner urges us to think about our listening skills as a “balance of assimilation and accommodation” — an idea rooted in Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s cognitive learning theories. “Assimilation refers to, ‘I already have a mental category for that, and I’m going to fit whatever learning or observing into that existing schema,’” Dattner explains, “While accommodation refers to a complete schema change, based on new information.” Ideally, there’s a balance between the two. When listening, it’s important to recognize how our brain is organizing data in our minds. “It’s about having a mindset that allows us to accept information that will add to our current understandings, and potentially change our perception, too,” Dattner explains. “That’s how we can embrace deeper learning.”
Adopt a “traveler mindset”
Oftentimes, we’re afraid to ask stupid questions, but Dattner points out that asking for clarity can only benefit us, both in our own learning and our workplace relationships. “Active listening can let someone know you’re hearing them, and that you care about what they have to say,” he adds. “So don’t be afraid to reply with, ‘Here’s my understanding of what you’re saying.’” Dattner calls this strategy the “traveler mindset,” because individuals from different cultures are more inclined to ask for clarity, whereas people from the same culture naturally assume everything means the same thing to each of us. “Start at a place where you don’t assume understanding,” he adds. “It causes you to slow down, and ultimately learn more.”
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