Date posted: 10/06/2019

How to become a “people person”

Active listening, mindfulness and empathy could be your key to building meaningful connections.

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Are you having trouble making yourself heard at uni or at the office? Is there someone on your team who just never seems to understand you until you've told them the same thing a dozen times?

Practicing your elevator pitch in front of the mirror can be helpful, but the key to getting your point across might just be to take another look at the way that you listen, in order to truly be heard.

Rebecca Shafir, communications expert and author of The Zen of Listening1, suggests the average person can only recall about a quarter of what's discussed in any given conversation. Obviously, that's a problem. Beyond the fact that efficiently absorbing information is a crucial skill, misunderstandings can be damaging to your relationships.

In his report "Get Out of Your Head,"2 researcher Charlie Scott advises that to be a leader in the workplace - or in any area of life - you need to be able to foster communication and cooperation, anticipate the actions of your colleagues, solve their problems and follow up on their issues. These actions all require empathy.

Interpersonal abilities such as empathy are often referred to as "soft skills" and regularly, the assumption is that you're either a "people person", or you're not. But these skills aren't soft because they're unimportant - they're soft because they're habits of mind and behaviour that can be actively acquired and improved with patience and practice3.

One technique to help bolster your interpersonal skills is "active listening". It's a method of paying attention, fully concentrating on and absorbing what someone else is saying to you. Active listening begins with the most basic behaviours of listening. For example, you know when someone is listening to you because they're making eye-contact. Perhaps they're taking notes occasionally. Often, they'll indicate that they're listening by nodding their head or asking questions related to the subject at hand.

The other benefit of active listening is that it makes the person you're listening to feel valued and respected, reducing the opportunities for interpersonal misunderstanding and conflict4.

However, to become a people person, paying attention isn't enough on its own. You have to genuinely develop empathy with your colleagues, sharing and understanding their emotions. In an article for The Conversation5, Pascal Molenberghs, Senior Lecturer in Social Neuroscience at Monash University, writes that empathy is important because it helps us respond appropriately to the needs of others. For Molenberghs, one of the foundations of empathy is self-awareness - which can itself be strengthened through mindful listening and communication.

The practice of mindful listening goes beyond active listening, explains Shafir. "Mindful listening can help you to become aware of distractions so you can refocus and listen consciously."

To begin with, sometimes it's useful to take a few moments before an important conversation to clear your mind and focus on your breathing. Gently acknowledge any thoughts or preoccupations that might be floating through your head, and try to focus on the simple act of breathing.

In conversation, you can use the same techniques to stay focused on the person you're talking to. Whenever you find yourself distracted, acknowledge your thoughts and gently bring your attention back to the speaker.

It can also be helpful to examine your own motivations and attitudes. In MindTools' Empathy at Work6, the team suggests that to develop real empathy, it's important to ask the hard questions of yourself: when you're having a conversation, are you fixated on getting your own way, winning an argument or being right? Or, are you motivated by finding solutions and building relationships? On learning something new? Psychological barriers can make it difficult to accept new information, and a difference in attitude can considerably affect the outcome of your communication.

As interest in workplace mindfulness techniques grows, the benefits - not just in interpersonal relations, but on reducing anxiety, lowering blood pressure and encouraging more positive feelings - are also being recognised7.

Improving your emotional intelligence can help you to understand other people and adjust your own behaviour to suit or anticipate the way someone might react in certain situations. John D. Mayer, author of Personal Intelligence, and Professor of Psychology at the University of New Hampshire told FastCompany8 that people who are good at figuring other people out possess an advantage in the workplace: "They understand people's needs well enough to know how to cooperate with them, and they identify the troublesome members of the group and can keep an eye on them".

However, if this all sounds too complicated, there's one easy method to become more of a people person: whenever you're having a conversation, put away your laptop, and mute your phone. Don't try to multitask. Concentrate on the person in front of you and hopefully, they'll do the same for you.