Six steps to attentive listening

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Are you sitting comfortably?

For readers of a particular age in the UK the phrase Are you sitting comfortably? triggers an immediately attentive response. It is intimately linked to the children's radio series Listen with Mother, no long defunct and yet part of the folklore of childhood.

The phrase acted as an anchor for moving into a state of attentive listening. As this was a radio programme that attentive listening required a relaxed but focused state because there was no human speaker to interact with.

When we do interact with others there is a tendency to only partially focus, allowing other preoccupations to be part of our flow of thoughts. A recent study at the University of Shanghai supported other research by indicating that peak state, active attention was sustainable for about 20 minutes by most adults. The good news is that we can refresh that active attention, pushing the time of absolute focus well beyond 20 minutes.

When interacting with another person there are six key strategies that ensure you are being attentive and focused. They are also picked up on by your interlocutor, which enhances their sense of being listened to and appreciated.

One: posture.

Make sure that you are turned towards the person who is speaking with you. If you are facing them directly, don't slump back. Sit up, lean forward from time to time.

Two: eye contact.

Eye contact needs to be steady but not gazing. This can feel uncomfortable for some people. A technique for those who find making eye contact difficult is to concentrate on one of your interlocutor's eyes, rather than both. You can switch the focus between eyes from time to time, giving a more natural feeling to your interaction.

Three: head movements.

Most of your head movements will be small, but they all need to positive in that they confirm you are following the conversation. Nods for affirmation, dipping the chin to indicate reflective thinking and small shakes of the head to indicate that you too would object to the issue that the speaker objects to. Your head movements should mirror the content of the discussion.

Four: gestures.

On the whole gestures need to be open ones: palms up, hands out and arms that are uncrossed. Mini-mirroring is an unobtrusive way of establishing rapport and maintaining attention. If your interlocutor is leaning on their right arm or gesturing a lot with their left hand, a slight emphasis by you with your right hand in the first example or your left in the second, will help to establish the relationship as an attentive one. Mirroring does not meaning slavishly copying gestures that's just creepy!

Five: reflected vocabulary.

Everyone has pet phrases or words. We all express intent and expectation using terms that feel good to us. Every industry or setting has its way of codifying language. Pick up on a few of the aspects that the speaker is using and reflect those back in your responses.

Six: break cleanly.

All of the good work that you have done in being an attentive listener can be wiped away in a moment if you don't break the dialogue cleanly. It can give the impression that you either have not been listening attentively or that they have little interest in what was discussed. When you break a conversation do so with a reason that you can give to your interlocutor; make sure that you express and interest in what was discussed and reference something specific to show that you were paying attention; and give an indication that this will be taken on from that point, either through further reflection, returning at a specific point or taking an action.

These six steps will ensure that you are an active and attentive participant in a discussion or presentation. The respect that you demonstrate by being attentive also goes a long way to building excellent rapport.

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