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Good Listening: What William Shatner Can Teach You

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: Good Listening: What William Shatner Can Teach You

William Shatner leans forward and looks his guest in the eye. What was it like, really like, he asks, to live in New York City in the early 1980s when crime was out of control? He is talking to Bernhard Goetz, the so-called subway vigilante who in 1984 shot four teenagers that he said were attempting to mug him.

After the shooting, Goetz became a polarizing figure--a hero to some and an unhinged racist to others.

However you may feel about Goetz, you will better understand him--as well as a difficult chapter in the history of New York City--if you watch Shatner interview him.

Shatner is the host of Aftermath, a television show on the Bio channel that explores what happens when ordinary people are thrust into extraordinary circumstances. I stumbled across the series recently and was immediately struck by what a great listener Shatner is.

Who knew that the pitchman for Priceline had this in him?

All good communication starts with good listening. To understand the needs and goals of your boss, your organization, your client or your audience, you have to be a good listener.

We spend about 60 percent of our communication time listening but only retain about 25 percent of what we hear, according to Julian Treasure, author of Sound Business.

To retain more of what we hear--to really understand what other people are saying--takes some skill. I'm always looking for ways to be a better listener. I pay attention to people who make good listening seem effortless. I've noticed five key attributes that are common among good listeners and that Shatner embodied in his interview with Bernhard Goetz. Good listeners:

1. Bring Fresh Ears to Each Conversation. Working in a particular field and with the same colleagues can cause you to tune out. You can feel like you've heard the same thing a thousand times before. But by not bringing your full attention to the conversation, you may well miss something important that you need to know.

At the start of Shatner's interview, he asks Goetz to describe New York in the early 1980s. When Goetz casually says that it was a violent and scary place to live, Shatner looks genuinely surprised, if not shocked. It was as if it were the first time he had ever heard that New York was less than a peaceful, even bucolic, place to live. Shatner's surprise prompts Goetz to paint a vivid picture of the fear that many New Yorkers experienced during that time.

Whenever you have a conversation with someone, even someone you work with or have known a long time, make the decision that you will bring fresh ears to what the other person is saying. Resolve to listen to the person as if for the first time. When you do, you increase your chances of hearing the "quiet, the subtle, the understated," as Treasure puts it.

2. Show Interest. Shatner was clearly interested in hearing Goetz's story. He demonstrated his interest in part through his posture--he leaned toward Goetz--and through his eye contact throughout the interview. It was as if Shatner was hearing the most fascinating story in the world.

When people sense that you are truly interested in what they have to say, they will open up to you. When you speak with people, lean toward them. You can do this even if you're talking on the phone. They will sense it. By showing a genuine interest, you will learn things that are important for your work that you would not discover without that curiosity.

3. Show Empathy. As we become adults and enter the working world, we often feel that to be "professional" we must check our emotions--our empathy--at the door. But at the heart of good listening is a connection with another human being. Shatner makes that connection repeatedly with Goetz.

At one point, Goetz talked about what led him to get a gun that he later used to repeatedly shoot the young men. He described a brutal mugging that he had endured in which his attacker repeatedly beat him, smashed his face against a plate glass window and stomped on his knee, leaving him with painful, lingering injuries. After listening to Goetz's harrowing tale, Shatner looks at him and says, "I would carry that trauma for the rest of my life."

By showing that you understand the feelings, the constraints, the fears, and the hopes of the people you are listening to you, you go a long way in encouraging them to open up to you. That openness, in turn, will help you do your job better.

4. Ask Good, Even Challenging Questions. Being a good listener doesn't mean that you are passive receptacle of what the other person is saying. Part of being a good listener is being an engaged listener. The more Goetz spoke in his interview, the more it was apparent that he had no concept that he may have made a mistake in shooting those young men. At least one of them--the one who was most seriously injured--appeared to have nothing to do with any planned mugging. Shatner is not afraid to call Goetz on his disordered thinking. When Goetz claims that it was not a "big deal" to shoot the men, Shatner says that it was indeed a big deal and challenges him to consider that he might be in the wrong.

When you listen to someone and she says something that doesn't make sense or you don't understand, ask her about it. Ask probing questions. Give her a counter-argument to what she's saying--with the idea of getting her to explain more fully what she is trying to get across. Sometimes the people we need to understand haven't fully thought out what they are trying to say. By asking good questions we help them think through more clearly what they are trying to communicate.

5. Get Out of the Way. Shatner never draws attention to himself. He never tries to show how smart he is. He asks questions because he really wants to know the answers. And then he shuts up. By doing so, he gives his guests the space to explain in their own words, at their own pace, what they went through. Too often I see people make the mistake of simply biding their time until the other person stops talking and they can make a point or tell their own story.

Great listeners are secure enough in themselves that they can focus completely on the other person. When you need to listen to someone, remember that you don't have anything to prove. Your job is to help them communicate something as clearly and vividly as possible.

By making the other person the focus, by asking genuine, even heartfelt questions and then shutting up, you can be a great listener.

If you get the chance, take a look at an episode of Aftermath and see a great listener in action.


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