Words by: Zena James

Students at careers fair
Does anyone really listen properly, or are we too busy trying to make our own point and create a fabulous impression of ourselves to value what others are saying?

Zena James talks to Eyes Wide Opened ‘listening’ coach and former Scotland Yard hostage negotiator **** Mullender about the art of good listening and how doing it better could be the key to a decent job interview.

How to listen

**** Mullender’s job is teaching people how to listen. Former lead trainer at the UK’s National Crisis and Hostage Negotiation Unit, he’s trained staff at the Metropolitan Police, the United Nations and the FBI.

Among other things, he now runs eternally popular master classes in listening as part of career-clarifying courses for graduates and students. The idea is that if we listen properly, especially in an interview or challenging discussion with an employer, we’ll find out a lot more quickly what makes that person tick and what they need from us.

After all, the skill of listening is in the interpretation, yet most of us are too busy planning the next question, applying our own judgement or just following our own agenda - we don’t take note of what’s really being said or the meaning of it.

Mullender says:

“People have less control than we think over what they say. In order to be able to speak at a reasonable pace, our words come from our subconscious, this means that inadvertently we often give away secrets. If you know how to listen you can identify those secrets, gain a better understanding and therefore persuade more easily.

“We're actually not that good at listening, although most of think we are. On top of that we often don’t stop to think about what we’re listening for or what we really want the result to be from each conversation.”

A good listener builds relationships

The thinking is that, at work, a decent listener builds relationships with colleagues and solves problems more quickly. In a job interview, Mullender advises that graduates should ask the interviewer what success would look like in six months if they were hired. It will uncover what they‘re looking for and helps you work out whether it’s a job you’d really want.

Student being interviewed
“It is all about what they want from you, not what you have to offer. To give them what they want, you must understand how they see the world and what their drivers and motivators are. All of these you can get by listening well.”

Having spent time exploring how their own listening skills are and how they would tackle these questions, young people generally emerge being more honest with themselves and ready to see the world as it is, not as they would like it to be.

Learning to listen better doesn’t just equip you to have a more productive conversation with an employer, it equips you for most practical and emotional challenges in life.

Mullender concludes:

“Listening well is not just about verbal conversations either: you need to ‘listen’ to what the job description is saying and tailor your CV to respond to those specific demands. Give them what they need. Be ready with answers to the inevitable questions and rehearse them with a friend you trust before you go. Act on their feedback and rehearse again until you feel comfortable.

But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen hard when you get there. You still need to be alert to what’s happening in the room in that moment and react with care. There’ll be more room in your head for this if you’ve already thought about what your response to the more obvious questions might be.”

Five top tips for great listening:
  • When someone’s speaking, focus fully on what they’re saying, rather than planning the next question, pushing your agenda or making judgements. Try to identify the secrets they’ll inevitably be letting slip, because once you’ve figured out what makes a person tick, how they see the world and want they want from you, you can persuade them that you have what they need.
  • Think hard about what information you need to be listening for. In a job interview this means listening for clues about who’d best fit their team and culture, and what qualities the interviewer values most highly in people.
  • Ask brilliant questions, like “what success would look like in six months’ time if I was hired?” Listening well to the answer will reveal a lot about the kind of person they really need.
  • ‘Listen’ carefully to the meanings behind key words in emails and job descriptions. If a job spec includes ‘capable of working with ‘minimal supervision’ it means taking the initiative, being pro-active, and devising your own tasks and projects. Is this you?
  • Rehearse for interviews and listen carefully to a friend’s feedback. Plan how you’ll respond to predictable questions (‘Tell me about yourself’, ‘Why do you want this job?’ etc.) so that you have more headspace to listen and focus when you’re in the room.

Previous blog posts by Zena:
Career hunting and the art of reflection

Zena guest blogs for TSR on the topic of careers. She also freelances for Eyes Wide Opened, an organisation that runs intensive career-clarifying courses for young people at different life stages, be they curious school-leavers, mid-degree forward-planners or recent panicking graduates! If you think they might help now or after exams are over, have a look at Eyes Wide Opened.

Image of students at careers fair and student being interview used courtesy of COD Newsroom and bpsusf respectively via Flickr under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. Image cropped and resized.