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Master the Art of Active Listening

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Ashamed as I am to admit it, I’ve always had a hard time listening well. My mind goes a mile a minute, and while I try to process the things being said to me in conversation as best I can, I don’t always catch everything. Maybe you remember when a former manager berated me for zoning out while we were in the middle of a conversation. Needless to say, being a good listener hasn’t always been my strong suit, and I’m not proud of that.

But lucky for me, we aren’t born with active listening skills; we develop them by learning and then practicing them—so maybe there’s hope for me yet…!

Levo spoke with Terri McCullough during yesterday’s Office Hours. While McCullough today holds the incredibly powerful position as Executive Director of the Tory Burch Foundation, she met playwright and activist Anna Deavere Smith years back, and helped her build her nonprofit, Anna Deavere Smith Works, to support art that delved into social issues. It was Deavere Smith, author of the book Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines, who taught McCullough the art of active listening—a skill she herself used to create better characters for her plays.

The Chinese word for “listen” is tīng. It’s composed of two characters, one which makes the word for “ear,” the other which stands for the eyes, undivided attention, and the heart. When we listen, we should be using our ears, obviously, but also our eyes, our undivided attention, and our hearts. Basically, we should be listening with our whole selves.

McCullough said one of the most important factors, when it comes to active listening, is that you’re not just sitting there waiting for your turn to speak. You need to really, deeply hear what the other person has to say, process it, and demonstrate that you understood what was said.

So if you want to be a better active listener—and I know I do!—McCullough pointed us in the direction of the things she’s learned throughout her diverse career in politics and non-profits.

Active listening is a powerful tactic. If you’re on the phone, or talking with someone, train yourself not to speak during lulls in the conversation, says McCullough. The other person will feel so uncomfortable that they’ll probably start saying things just to fill the silence. This is a great tactic to try in interviews.

Be present and engaged. Look the person in the eye, and try to capture not just what they’re saying, but what’s behind what they’re saying. Think to yourself, what they’re saying may or may not be what they mean, says McCullough. This is where listening with your eyes comes into play; different body language gestures can give away a lot more than just the words spoken.

Force yourself to connect. Really focus. We owe each other that, McCullough says, but we get so busy sometimes that it becomes harder and harder to do. When your mind goes a mile a minute (*raises hand*), don’t let the other thoughts in your head narrate a conversation. Try repeating what the person says in your head, rather than preparing what you’re going to say next, especially before the person you’re talking to is even done speaking.

Slow it down. It feels like a luxury when you finally do learn to actively listen. When you get there, don’t multitask. We lose a certain percentage of our brain elasticity and sharpness each year, says McCullough, but we can get it back by exercising our brains, slowing down what we do and focusing wholly on one task at hand. It won’t just be your brain that thanks you; those you speak with will thank you as well.

Hear more about the things McCullough learned throughout her incredible career by watching her Office Hours below:

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