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Listen up: 5 exercises to develop your most important communication skill

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Listening is one of the most underrated of all communication skills, with most of us preferring to work on our delivery and presentation style over how we receive the words of others.

But, as Communicate To Inspire author Kevin Murray points out in our everywomanNetwork workbook Powerful workplace communication, sometimes “the most inspirational thing you can do is give people a darn good listening to”. We all know what it feels like to not be heard, to be misunderstood - either deliberately or unintentionally, not given a fair platform to air our views or be pre-judged, talked over or dismissed.

To hone our own listening skills is not just to elevate ourselves as great communicators, but also as leaders in the making. For what is a leader who does not listen to his or her customers, advisors or employees?

Give yourself an edge in your workplace communications with these quick exercises designed to sharpen your listening skills.

1. Tune into your surroundings

Get comfy in a place where you’re enveloped by sound – a coffee shop, commuter train, busy restaurant or workplace lobby. In five minutes, note each sound you hear (avoid relying on your other senses to help).

At first the ‘channels’ you note might be fairly broad (background music, footsteps, voices). Soon, a far richer variety of sounds might be discernible (high heels clicking, jangle of shoe buckles, nervous laughter, exasperated sighs). It’s a great exercise for understanding your own listening – when it’s ‘switched on’ and when it’s on autopilot.

Bonus tip: Heighten the power of your senses by indulging in a mini ‘sound detox’ before you do the above exercise. Take a few minutes in the quietest place you can find – under the duvet, in the spare bedroom or an empty conference room; anywhere where the noise channels are minimal.

2. Ask powerful questions

Well-considered, insightful questions are perhaps the best indicator we can give to our speaker that we’re listening. At the end of a busy day take five minutes to focus in on one conversation you’ve had, be it small talk about weekend plans, an instruction from your boss or an introduction to a new member of the team. First, consider what you learned about the person speaking, their motivations and how they’re feeling. Second, consider what questions you might have asked them which would have given you even more knowledge. “Open questions work best, says everywoman Associate Trainer Pippa Isbell. “What, why, when, how, where, who?”

“Probe even further with ‘tell me more’ and ‘then what happened?’ Finally, ask reflective questions: ‘What’s the conclusion?’ ‘What was learned?’ ‘Where do we go from here?’”

3. Practise active listening

What we hear when others speak has travelled through many unconscious filters before it reaches us. We might interpret what someone tells us based on our own assumptions about them and their story or our own past experiences. To really listen without interpretation takes practice. Take turns sharing a story with a trusted friend or colleague. It can be about anything. Once they’ve finished talking, summarise it back to them in your own words. Ask them to point out where you’ve added conjecture, misunderstood elements of the story, added interpretation or missed out crucial components.

4. Listen with your eyes

You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted statistic about words accounting for only 7% of what others perceive through our communication, while tone and body language make up the rest (38% and 55% respectively).

See for yourself just how many layers of meaning tone and body language can add to a message. The next time you’re watching a broadcast – a news item, TED talk, the first few minutes of your favourite TV soap, drama or documentary, or one of our everywomanClub Voices of experience videos – close your eyes for a few minutes and see what you can discern about the speaker’s message from their words alone. Next, rewind and conduct the same exercise with the volume muted. Can anything new be discerned about what the speaker or character is communicating? Listen/watch back once more with sound and vision, reflecting on what each component – words, tone, and body language – added to your understanding of the whole.

5. Let RASA be your mantra

In conversations with others it’s all too easy to fall into bad habits – waiting for a pause to inject our own point of view, mulling over what we want to say rather than truly listening to what’s being said or receiving what the other person is saying with ‘filters’ in place. If you find yourself falling into these traps, try an approach used by sound expert Julian Treasure: “RASA, which is the Sanskrit word for juice or essence… stands for Receive, which means pay attention to the person; Appreciate, making little noises like "hmm," "oh," "okay"; Summarise, the word "so" is very important in communication; and Ask… ask questions afterward.”

More quick exercises on the everywomanNetwork:

The da Vinci career code: exercises for creative geniuses

The 5-minute exercises to instantly increase your presence & impact at work

The 5 quick exercises to get you started in self-promotion