Active listening and social etiquette

by Magenta

23 July, 2018

By Paul Russell, a luxury lifestyle coach.

If there’s one skill we’ve all mastered, it is the art of fake listening. We do it all the time, nodding our heads, smiling in the right places but mentally we’re somewhere else entirely. It reminds me of a story about President Franklin D. Roosevelt who was said to like to throw in a complete curve ball at White House receptions to test whether others were listening. “I murdered my grandmother this morning,” he is supposed to have been fond of announcing whilst shaking hands and in a tone you might use to say “hello, how are you.” It is said that very rarely were his efforts to root out conversational fakers ever met with an appropriate response.

There are many reasons that we don’t actively listen, it may be because we are focused on something else entirely, be that meeting a president or what we’re going to order at Starbucks on the way home. It could be that instead of actively listening we’re actually planning what we are going to say, and poised like a diver on a board we are waiting for our moment to surge into the conversation. Whatever the reason that we don’t actively listen, the results are the same- ineffective communication, limited engagement and little development of rapport. Of all the new skills you could develop for Learn Something New Week, the most important one is probably the one that you think you already know how to do- listen.

The most difficult time to try and achieve active listening is when you’re hearing something that you don’t want to hear. The urge to break in is almost overwhelming, and very few people are able to withstand that impulse to snatch up a comment and utilise it as leverage within the conversation. If this is you, then conflict and disagreement is something that you are probably well familiar with, your conversations are more likely to be battle grounds full of invisible point scoring than anything that resembles a productive and useful conversation.

Everyone though can benefit from active listening and there are key steps to take. The first is to actually pay attention, it sounds simple but in the majority of cases we are far more focused on ourselves than on our conversational partner. Flip this dynamic, and give them your full attention. Judgement is the next trap that we tend to fall into, so whether we’re judging them out loud or just inside our own heads, this type of thinking inhibits active listening. Try not to jump into every available space in the conversation, instead allow the other person time to formulate their thoughts and fully express what they want to say. This is a particularly useful tactic in a situation of conflict as butting in can often escalate rather than calm a situation.

When you feel that there is a natural pause you can ask open ended questions to gain a further insight into the topic. This is the time when you can clarify anything that you’re not clear about and perhaps also acknowledge how the speaker might be feeling, saying something like, “that must have been terrifying for you.” Acknowledging feelings really helps someone to feel truly heard. For complex or professional discussions, this might be the point at which you would also summarise what has been said, giving your conversational partner the opportunity to add anything else that is relevant. From here you can show through gestures and words your understanding of the situation. Often, we think that we then need to quickly solve the problem, but in many cases active listening fulfils the primary need.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt smilingly proclaimed that he had murdered his grandmother, what he was asking for was to be heard. What he wanted was for someone to engage with this on a genuine level. To pay attention, to not (in the first instance at least!) judge, and instead of a tired platitude actually offer something of value in response, and with this utterance there are many, many open ended questions that could have been asked of Roosevelt! There is no denying that active listening is a lot more challenging than fake listening, but the rewards are infinitely greater. So this Learn Something New week, challenge yourself to do something transformative- actively listen.

Paul Russell is a luxury expert and etiquette coach who works with private clients and high net worth individuals in the art of correct behaviour. He is co-founder and managing director of Luxury Academy, a multi-national company, specialising in soft skills training for the luxury market. Luxury Academy have offices in London, Delhi, Visakhapatnam and Mumbai. Prior to founding Luxury Academy, Paul worked in senior leadership roles across Europe, United States, Middle East and Asia.