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Did you know that ‘silent’ is an anagram of ‘listen’?

One thing I’m still learning in my career is the power of silence. When I was younger, I always believed that unless my lips were moving, I wasn’t contributing. My logorrhoea knew no bounds and I just hoped that whoever was at the receiving end of my verbal bombardment was able to pick out the useful bits.

I’m by no means an expert at listening or being silent, but the anagrammic analog between these two words inspired me to think about my top tips for listening and being silent. I hope these ideas on how to be an effective, silent, listener are helpful.

Sit next to the person. If you want someone to really feel listened to, sit next to them and create a more intimate situation where you are not face-to-face separated and confrontational.

Interrogate. Ask lots of short questions, which are designed to give long answers. Such as : “tell me more”, “why?”, “what prompted that approach?” etc. Then let them answer fully before you ask another question. I know lots of people who think they are good listeners because they ask questions – but then they go and blow it by saying something stupid like another follow-up question before the first question has been answered fully.

Look at them. Watch their body language. Look them in the eye. Give the other person your undivided attention: make them feel that there is nothing more important in the world to you at that moment. If you are sitting next to them, this can be tricky: I find kitty-corner (two sides of a corner of a table) the most effective layout.

Empathy: understand their perspective without taking over the conversation. Saying “yeah, the same thing happened to me” and then launching into your own personal story is not listening. It’s taking over the conversation and making then listen to you.

No action. You don’t need to jump in and try to ‘solve’ the situation, nor do you need to necessarily resolve every comment. At the end of the conversation, it may be useful to wrap up with some actions, but jumping into solution mode immediately isn’t good listening.

Take notes. If appropriate, take lots. Taking notes is a great way to shut yourself up. It’s hard to talk and write at the same time, writing things down make the other person feel they are important, and often while you are writing – and the room is silent – they will say more than they originally intended. Let them fill the silence.

OK: I admit it. It took me a while to come up with the mnemonic ‘SILENT’ for these six tips. But it took me even longer to come up with the next six tips which – you guessed it – spell LISTEN. So here are six more tips I’ve found useful:

Lichen. Be like lichen and stick the topic they want to discuss. This is about them and their topics of interest not you and yours.

Intimacy. If you can create a situation where the person can open up, and feel listened to, try and create an intimate situation (but not in a weird way!). It can be as simple as room layout; or how you sit.

Secret. Remind the person that – if appropriate – your conversation is confidential and you won’t betray that trust. A good listener talks little. Loose lips sink ships.

Timing. Find the moment, and allow enough time for the conversation. You can’t give someone a good listening to in five minutes. It takes time.

Environment. This is related to intimacy. Getting the environment right is key: a quiet corner, a couple of sofas, a café…these are all better than a formal office, boardroom, or meeting room.

No tech. Leave it out. It is too tempting: when your phone starts flashing it becomes the centre of attention – not the other person. So keep your tech out of the room. My super smart phone is currently being repaired and I currently have to use a very old fashioned phone which is super low-tech. No social media, no web, no email. As a result, there are fewer distractions when I’m listening.

So take your pick. Use “S-I-L-E-N-T”or “L-I-S-T-E-N” (or both). Or whatever works for you. All I know is that since I discovered the anagrammic connection between these words, it has helped me improve my listening skills. Now I know that I can make a contribution via my ears, not just my lips.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.


Stephen Welch is a communication, HR, and change professional with strong skills in consulting, leadership development and research. He designs and delivers workshops to help communication professionals advance and develop their career through business simulations and role play.

Along with Casilda Malagón, Stephen is the creator of Corporate Snakes and Ladders, the business simulation coming to Fusion for its Asia-Pacific premiere. Stephen is a member of the Market Research Society and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and past president and board mentor of the IABC U.K. chapter. Follow him on Twitter at @stephenwelch11.