In business, it’s estimated that we interrupt each other every two or three minutes. We don’t listen to each other, even though science tells us how important it is. Instead, we drift off thinking about what we’re going to say next or form our own opinions about what’s being said.
Authentic listening involves much more than letting words hit your ears; it is the practice of showing up with intention—the intention to create a space that makes someone feel heard and understood. It’s a skill we’re not often taught, but one that’s crucial to building a strong foundation of trust, empathy, and support.
Below are some steps you can take to authentically listen and create an open dialogue. The experience of being heard is profound, especially important in the world we are living in now. And it is also rare.
1. Create a Focused Environment
Listening is not something that comes naturally to us. And in our constantly distracted world, it is harder than ever to give others our undivided attention. To make this easier, create an environment that allows you to focus wholeheartedly on what the other person is saying. Put devices away, minimize noise and distractions, and make sure you’ve blocked off enough uninterrupted time for the conversation. Then settle in with presence: Make eye contact and show interest with open body language.
2. Set a Clear Intention
Whether you realize it or not, the other person can read your intention. So if your goal is to get the conversation over with before you have to run to your next meeting or appointment, that will be heard and felt. To set a tone that invites trust and openness, consider what you hope the other person will experience in talking to you. For example, maybe you want them to feel heard, understood, or cared for. Set this intention at the start of your conversation so that you embody it throughout. This one action has the greatest impact on your conversation.
3. Let Them Talk
There is a time and place for your opinions, but when listening authentically, the goal is to let the other person say what they need to say, which means getting out of the way. Acknowledge that you are listening with encouraging phrases (“Right,” “I see,”), and express appropriate empathic words (“Wow, that sounds hard,” “How exciting!”), but try to resist the urge to comment or pull the conversation to your own thoughts or opinions.
4. Confirm and Encourage
When there’s a pause, take the opportunity to reflect back specifics of what was said to show that you’re still with them (“So you’ve noticed things changing at work, it sounds like you’re worried about what that could mean for you.”) They might agree with your reflection or correct you and clarify what they’re actually feeling. Either way, allow them to say more.
5. Apply the Rule of Three
The first thing someone says is almost never what matters because the act of speaking helps them get clear on what they want to say. Invite them to say more, or ask if there is anything else they would like to share. Give them at least three opportunities to get to what really matters. Then summarize what you heard.
In our action-oriented culture, it’s likely that you’ll want to jump into solution-mode, but not every conversation has to end with a plan or answer. The process of authentic listening can be a goal in itself: to simply understand another person. And when you do provide someone with the rare opportunity to feel heard authentically, you can help them dissolve heightened emotions, and build an invaluable foundation of trust for more meaningful and productive conversations in the future.