How to listen between the lines

How do you rate your listening skills? If you haven’t given yourself 10 out of 10 for listening (and be honest–who can?!) read on.

We often think we’re listening properly, but sadly, that’s seldom the case. One of the main causes of poor listening is that we can think a lot more quickly (about 7 times, in fact) than most people speak, which gives us time to daydream, think about what we’re going to say, or mentally criticise the person who’s speaking or their message. Putting all this free mental time to good use will help you become a better listener.

That’s where TING, the Chinese word for listen, comes in. It’s made up of four characters, the heart, the mind, the ears, and the eyes. Listening with your heart, mind and eyes, as well as your ears, helps you pay attention to what’s being said and how it’s being said, so you don’t merely hear, but really understand, what another person is saying.

  • Vague words: When you hear a fuzzy word, like ‘soon’ or ‘good’ for instance, ask a question to find out more about what is meant.Yes, I’ll get it to you soon. Can you commit to providing it by Friday morning? I need it by then so that I can take our project to the next stage. (This will help you keep to your timelines and put a stop to empty promises.)
  • Generalisations: When you hear a sweeping, all-encompassing word like ‘always’ or ‘never’, keep listening and asking questions until you understand what the other person really means.

    You’re always picking on me! 
    You think I’m harder on you than on the rest of the team. (This invites the speaker to provide their evidence without challenging them and starting an argument.)
  • Comparisons: When you hear one situation or event compared or contrasted to another, find out more: ‘In what way better?’, ‘In what way easier?’ Similarly, when you hear a word that implies a comparison, like ‘better than’, ‘worst’ or ‘easiest’, check it out. ‘Better than what?’ ‘Worse than what?’ ‘Easier than what?’This job is so much better than my last one! What makes it better?

    This is the worst job I’ve ever had! What in particular makes this job so bad? (This will gather some valuable information.)

  • Unspoken rules, like ‘have to’, ‘should’, ‘must’ or ‘can’t’ are usually worth exploring, too. ‘Why must we?’ ‘What happens if we don’t?’We can’t do it that way. Is there a reason why we can’t other than precedence? What might happen if we did this differently? (This helps you explore what the rule enforcer is thinking.)

Now you’re listening with your mind as well as your ears. And now for listening with your heart and eyes.

  • Listen with your heart by mentally putting yourself in the other person’s ‘shoes’; as you listen, and try to understand what it is really like from where they stand.
  • Finally, listen with your eyes by observing the other person’s body language and movements and watching for sudden changes. Body language never fails to reveal something interesting.

TING makes sure you really hone in on what the other person is saying. It has another benefit, too: it also shows people you’re really trying to understand their viewpoint. This alone makes them more willing to express themselves fully and say what’s really on their mind. Listening well encourages people to open up and it builds mutual understanding and relationships.

Discussion questions

Could you us Ting to raise your listening score, manage better and strengthen your working relationships?