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Who is the best listener you know? Would anyone in your life answer you?
Few people are taught how to listen. Aside from being told to “listen up” or “pay attention” as kids, you may think that just because you can hear something you are listening. There is a crucial difference though. Whereas hearing just happens, effective listening is active and requires certain skills. Short of medical intervention, hearing doesn’t usually improve; however, with a few tweaks, becoming a better listener is easy.
(You may have heard of active listening. What is active listening? It’s a specific technique that is used primarily in counseling and dispute resolution. Although the listening discussed in this article requires “active” participation, it is not this specialized method.)
Why Be a Better Listener?
With the rise of electronic communication, it feels like society is getting curter, as a result of so much texting and emailing. People’s attention spans are waning; there are so many distractions. It used to be that the only world a person lived in was the one they were physically standing in. Now, you can simultaneously be scrolling through a parallel universe on your phone, while watching something called “reality” on the television, and getting pinged by someone on the other side of the globe. It makes sitting still difficult.
So, why be a better listener?
Primarily, improving your listening skills will improve your relationships. Everyone wants to be heard—or rather, everyone wants to be listened to. People go to therapy for this exact reason. Once you become a good listener, friendships will deepen, workplace productivity and camaraderie will improve, and romantic partnerships will strengthen.
Seem too simple to be true?
Imagine if every time you entered a conversation, the other person put down their phone, shut their laptop, and turned toward you with complete attention and presence. How do you think that would feel? If you think it would feel disarming, consider that could be because it is atypical. Multitasking is valued nowadays (whether you want to admit it or not) and distracted living is a way of life. In many ways, you are actively teaching yourself to tune out as the media makes its way into every corner of your day. The more challenging or heartbreaking news, the more tempting it is to go numb or zone out. All this to say, your communication skills will continue to worsen if you don’t do something about it.
Are You Listening to Understand or Listening to Respond?
A fascinating bit of research shows that there are two types of listening:
- Listening to understand: Facts, feelings, details
- Listening to respond: In essence, mentally rehearsing your response and waiting for your turn to talk
People who listen to understand have stronger interpersonal relationships. But be honest with yourself—it seems that people tend to think they are engaging in the former type of listening, when in fact, they are doing the latter.
6 Steps to Better Listening
While there are multiple types of effective listening strategies out there, these six steps will teach you how to become a better listener and improve your overall engagement level with the people in your world.
1. Be Present, Just as You Would in Meditation
Easier said than done, but there are some concrete things you can do to make your presence more accessible. Put down your phone, turn away from the screens, and focus. If you are occupied in an activity that truly needs your attention (for example, finishing an urgent email when someone in the office interrupts you to ask you a question), simply ask for what you need. You can say something like, “I want to give you my full attention, I just need another moment to finish this email,” or “I’ll be done with my work in just a few more minutes; do you think this can wait?”
On the other hand, if what you’re doing can be put on hold, prioritize the person in front of you. Eliminate the distractions that would prevent you from really being with the person. If you are scrolling through your social media, and your kid wants to ask you why the sky is blue, try not to answer and scroll at the same time. Approaching your relationships as sacred opportunities helps you not to miss a chance for growth and bonding.
2. Make Eye Contact and Have Supportive Body Language
When you do cut out the distractions around you, proactively engage in the physical cues that indicate true listening. Nod encouragingly, have appropriate facial expressions, and try to have open body language (no crossed arms). Lean into the person you are talking to, rather than pulling back. If your eyes are darting around, the listener will feel you are distracted and not paying attention. The bonus here is that the more you listen with your whole body and with nonverbal cues, the more you will model this behavior for others.
3. Ask Questions
Drawing out more information from your conversation partner shows them that you care and have an understanding of their thoughts and feelings. Furthermore, try asking open-ended questions to get them to share more details. The more they are able to share, the more heard they will feel, and the stronger the connection you will make. Try not to ask questions just for the sake of asking questions though—you do not want to come off as disingenuous. The best questions come as a result of really wanting to know the answers.
4. Let Them Finish Speaking Before Interrupting or Asking Questions
While it is important to probe for deeper information, be sure not to interrupt the speaker by being too eager or rushed. Practice patience and let them finish before asking follow-up questions. Oftentimes people shut down because they cannot finish their thoughts uninterrupted. If you have ever had someone jump all over your story with sidebars or too many exclamatory phrases, you know how discouraging it can feel to be vulnerable. Create space for your talking partner to complete what they are trying to say without rushing them.
5. Empathetically Repeat Back What You Heard
One of the most important active listening skills is to repeat back what you heard your partner say. You can acknowledge what you are receiving from them (like, “Wow, it sounds like you are really confused about what to do in this situation”) or repeat back the details to affirm that you understand what was said (“So it sounds like it makes more sense for you to invest in option A over B”). Summarizing what you heard also gives you the opportunity to empathize with your tone. You can normalize what the other person is experiencing by offering it back to them with compassion.
6. Remember the Details
Finally, you can test your listening skills by checking to see if you remember the details of the conversation after it is over. Sometimes you listen selectively, leaving room for misunderstanding. By trying to recall the elements of your conversation, you not only get a reality check on how present you were, but you also strengthen your memory skills.
4 Listening Pitfalls
Before you proclaim to be a better listener, watch out for some common pitfalls that can keep you limited to being a mediocre listener.
1. Going Through the Motions
It would be relatively easy to make it look like you are listening through non-verbal communication, without really doing so. If you are thinking about your body language and nodding your head while you listen, you aren’t really listening!
2. Mentally Rehearsing What You Are Going to Say
So often you want to be a helper and fixer and say the right thing to the people you care about most. However, when you get stuck thinking about how to respond, you aren’t receiving the information being provided. Try to put your attention on the speaker, rather than in your head.
3. Making It About You
With the best of intentions, jumping in with the story about how you went through “the same thing” can pull focus and make a person feel deflated at that moment. Be mindful of how often the conversation turns back to you. With that said, of course, if the conversation really is about you, then you should let it be. However, when you are listening, really listen.
4. Listening Out of Respect or Politeness, Not Curiosity or Connection
Finally, and this is a tricky one, it is best to become a better listener because of true desire, not out of obligation. Let your curiosity and compassionate heart drive your receptive communication. This subtle distinction can make all the difference.
The Right Mindset Is Key
As you reemerge into your day as a better listener, try assuming that you have something to learn from everyone to improve your active listening techniques. By bringing a curious attitude to every encounter—whether it is with the checkout lady at the pharmacy or your spouse—you contribute to a world where everyone is on the same team, rather than in a competition. Listening brings people together, so listen up, improve your communication habits, and you can heal the world one conversation at a time.