People who win arguments and are good at debating don’t just speak well, they listen well, too.
Good listening skills boost your credibility and make you sound confident. But very few people are good at it. They easily get distracted, they start planning what they’re going to say, or worse, they cut the other person off and rant away.
In my book, “Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking,” I outline the two types of listening to master: critical listening and empathetic listening.
This requires consciously absorbing, comprehending and evaluating the information given to you by a speaker in real-time. “Is it true or false?” “Does it make sense or not?” “Can I trust or believe what I am hearing?”
You need to be a critical listener when your teacher is giving you feedback on an essay you wrote. Or when your boss is going through what was wrong in a report you wrote.
Here’s how to be a critical listener when your opponent is making their case:
Keep an open mind.
When you’re arguing against an opponent, do not automatically assume that everything they’re saying is wrong, silly or dumb.
Listen for valid points or clever lines that you’ll then need to address or concede in your own remarks.
You should be confident in your own arguments, yes, but also remain open-minded enough to see where an opponent is strong or where you may have fallen short.
Clear your mind.
Don’t daydream or snooze as others around you are speaking and advocating. It damages your credibility and standing with an audience to be seen behaving in a rude or dismissive way.
Focus laser-like on the task at hand. By listening critically to your opponent and being ready to catch fallacious or false claims, you can prepare zinger-like responses, and win your argument.
Critical listening benefits from a sharp mind and a good memory. Both can be bolstered by good old-fashioned note-taking. Some of the most successful people on the planet are fastidious notetakers.
British billionaire Richard Branson, who says he goes through dozens of notebooks a year, wrote about a conference in London where he shared the stage with Bill Gates.
According to Branson, as Gates “made a closing speech … he pulled some pieces of paper out of his pocket.”
This is about connecting with the speaker and trying to see the world through their eyes. The goal is to focus on their views and to understand where they are coming from.
It may sound like a no-brainer, but in my experience, so many people — smart people! — are simply bad at it.
Here are three strategies that I’ve found most helpful:
Make it clear to the other speaker and to those watching and listening that you are focused on the other speaker.
“Quiet your inner monologue, set your device aside, and draw your attention to the other person,” says Ximena Vengoechea, author of “Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection.”
Make sure your attention is 100%, not on yourself.
Make eye contact.
I cannot overstate how important eye contact is as a means of showing empathy and building deep emotional ties.
Research supports it: One study of doctors and patients found that eye contact was “significantly related to patient perceptions of clinician empathy.”
Another study of public speakers found “participants were more likely to believe statements by a speaker looking at them directly, compared to a speaker with averted gaze.” Surprise!
Ask the right questions.
Pose questions to your interlocutors that allow them to drive the conversation, and then ask follow-up questions that show you were listening to their answers.
Opt for open-ended rather than close-ended questions, and questions that require personal and considered responses rather than one-word “yes” or “no” answers.