Think about how powerful it is to be heard.
In fact, reflect on an occasion when you had something to say, something important or vulnerable to share, and you knew you had the full attention of the other person.
That level of attention, when you know the other person is really listening to you, makes you feel valued. It makes you feel safe, understood, and important. Being heard validates you.
Now think about a time when you had something to say, but you didn't get that level of attention. The other person was distracted, looking at their phone, clearly thinking about something else, or mentally lining up their response without acknowledging your words.
You felt ignored, diminished, and inconsequential. Their inability or unwillingness to really hear you felt like a slap in the face.
Unfortunately, the art of being a good listener is becoming more and more of a lost art. Face to face and even phone conversations are no longer the primary way we communicate. The gatekeepers of our interactions are the computer and cell phone where we email or text in terse, abbreviated, and frequently misunderstood communiques.
When we do have in-person conversations, these same devices turn us into one of Pavlov's dogs, immediately turning our attention the minute we hear a ding. It's nearly impossible to be a good listener when you're on constant alert for some other more important message coming in.
We all know it's important to be a good listener because we know how good it feels when we're heard. Most of us want to be active listeners and to have the people we care about feel heard. But the ability to listen well affords other benefits beyond supporting others and gaining their appreciation.
Good listeners can . . .
- improve relationships in their personal and professional lives, as people tend to like those who listen to them;
- better solve problems for others and themselves;
- learn different points of views to broaden their own perspective;
- retain more important information which is useful for life and career success;
- make decisions easily because they have more information at their disposal;
- avoid conflicts and misunderstandings, as they gain more clarity through listening well;
- increase their confidence because they have access to information and can pass it on to others.
Being a good listener is similar to having good manners. It's a quality that doesn't seem to be a social requirement any longer, but if you practice it, it sets you apart from the crowd and makes others gravitate toward you.
If you'd like to sharpen your skills, here's how to be a good listener:
1. Remove or avoid distractions.
If you are going to converse with someone (or several people), then take a moment to anticipate possible distractions and remove them. Turn off your cell phone and put it away. Turn your computer off or turn off the sound so you can't hear emails and notifications coming in. Turn off the TV, radio, or any other device that could be distracting.
If someone needs to speak to you, and you're in the middle of a project or task, either ask them to wait until you're done, or stop what you're doing to listen. Multi-tasking doesn't allow for true listening.
If you're in a social setting, and you are speaking one-on-one with someone, try to step aside to a quiet space where you won't be pulled away or interrupted by other people. Definitely don't look over the other person's shoulder while they're talking to see who else is in the room.
2. Watch for non-verbal communication and tone of voice.
Hearing someone's words is just a small part of being a good listener. We communicate far more through our expressions, body language, and tone of voice.
When you are listening to someone, also watch them carefully. Are their arms crossed defensively, or are they sitting in an open, confident manner? Are they saying, “Everything's fine” with their words, but their face looks pinched and anxious?
Also, listen to how they present what they have to say. Do they sound tired, depressed, enthusiastic, confused? Are they mumbling, talking too loudly, or stating everything as though it were a question?
Learn the art of reading what people are really saying beyond their words. This can help you be more compassionate and understanding of people — and it can help you avoid getting involved with someone who appears deceitful, disinterested, or controlling.
3. Be the mirror.
A great technique for active listening is mirroring the person you are listening to. Without appearing to mimic them, try to reflect back their same tone of voice and speech pattern. You can also mirror their gestures and body language.
Mirroring helps build rapport with the other person, and it encourages the feeling that you share similar attitudes and ideas.
You can also reflect the concept or ideas you just heard communicated from the other person to reinforce that you understood and heard what they said. This is particularly important in your intimate relationships or in conflict situations.
For example, the other person might say, “I feel really hurt when you don't help me clean up after dinner.” You might summarize and restate, “So what I'm hearing you say is that when I don't help you clean up, it causes you pain.” You reflect words back to show you understood them correctly and that you care what was communicated.
4. Empathize, sympathize, and show interest.
You can show your interest and connection in a conversation through your own expressions, body language, and words.
Nod in agreement to show you are engaged and listening. Lean forward toward the other person. Smile or show concern appropriately. Offer words of affirmation and kindness. Give a hand squeeze or a warm touch on the shoulder to show empathy.
These subtle communications speak volumes about your level of engagement, concern, and interest.
5. Practice silence.
Sometimes the very best way to listen is to allow a space of silence in the conversation. A verbal response isn't always necessary, and this space of silence invites the speaker to offer more of what they are thinking and feeling.
It's uncomfortable to sit in silence for more than a few seconds, but push past the discomfort and just sit with it. Sometimes the most powerful connections are made in that silent space.
6. Ask probing questions.
As a coach, I use powerful questions frequently with my clients to help them uncover answers and solutions for themselves.
I use open-ended questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” response. Open-ended questions invite deeper insight and discourse between the two of you. Simply the act of asking a probing question as a follow-up to a comment shows the other person you are paying attention and interested.
Be sure your questioning doesn't become an interrogation. You want to listen more than you question, but when you do ask a question, it should be well-timed and non-threatening. Something as simple as, “Can you tell me more about that?” is enough to show you are really listening.
7. Don't interrupt or change the subject.
If you want to be a good listener, you need to allow the speaker to complete a thought without interrupting them. You've probably encountered people who frequently interrupt, take over the conversation, and use the audience as a platform for talking about themselves or sharing their knowledge or expertise.
Even if they are doing this unconsciously, it feels as though they haven't heard a word you've said — or that they don't really care about what you have to say.
Before you interject your response or make your case, be sure the other person is finished speaking. Allow for a pause in the conversation long enough to ensure it's your turn to talk.
Also, don't leave the speaker hanging out there with a conversation topic they've started by abruptly changing the subject. Offer a response or an additional thought to the topic before you move on to something you want to talk about.
8. Think before responding.
When it is your time to speak, let your words be a reflection of your careful listening. If you are truly engaged in what the other person is saying, then you aren't focused on what you want to say.
So rather that blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, take a moment to think about your response and what you want to offer. If your opinion is solicited, be sure you reflect carefully on what you just heard so you can offer a well-considered reply.
Becoming a good listener is a skill you must practice. It's far too easy to spin off into your own world of distractions, ideas, and words. Consciously work on becoming more of a listener than a talker. Learn to read other people's expressions and body language. Watch for the things that go unsaid but that are still communicated.
As you become more skilled at listening, you'll find people gravitate toward you more for your opinion and feedback. You'll have a skill that gives you the edge in your career and in all of your relationships.
What do you need to do to become a better listener? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.