It feels so wonderful when someone confides in you. When someone trusts you. When someone says you are a good listener. That’s one heck of a compliment. To be successful at whatever you do or to be an awesome human being, you need to be a good listener. Good listeners are better leaders, are more emotionally intelligent, more open-minded and more empathetic.
Being a good listener is a skill that can help foster healthy communicative relationships and bring people closer together. You spend a bulk of your time in school or work probably listening than any other activity. The problem is that we do not have enough good listeners in the world.
We have a lot of passive listeners, those who realize the conversation happening, but are not fully engaged. They’re probably attentive just enough to respond and add their own commentary. They are probably multitasking or maybe their mind is floating around and focused on some other things while the conversation is carrying on, but this kind of listener just hits the surface of the conversation. Not fully present. And you need to be fully present. Eye contact and all. You want to hear the speaker’s every word, digest and reflect on it. Because no, you’re not going to be waiting for your turn to speak. You’re going to be fully engaged in the next conversation or lecture. And the next.
We have those who focus a bit too much on the speaker and HOW they are delivering what they’re saying rather than WHAT they are really saying. Have I done that before? Ask my sister. “Syl, you’re not listening to what I’m saying, you’re listening to my tone of voice!” There you have it. It’s hard sometimes when you feel the tension in someone’s voice–loud, overpowering and seemingly like they know everything. I would be lying if I said no, and I promised to be a real human being and not waste your time, so yes, I admit I have done so before or am still guilty occasionally (hey, I’m still learning), but just know that it doesn’t help solve anything.
Focusing on the speaker talking too quickly or too softly, the background noise, the topic too boring to pique your interest or you’re clueless on the subject matter, the speaker’s sentences are too complex and long for you to follow through, or there’s simply no visual aid to help you while you’re listening is not the way to go. Hm. This can be tough especially when it’s more than one of the above scenarios. However, when you take time to hear what others have to say, I mean, like really listen–your employees, colleagues, customers, friends, professors, partners in crime, significant others, parents, pets, etc–they will thank you.
Sometimes, we all need to not judge or criticize, but really just simply LISTEN.
With that, I hope this post with tips and techniques will give you even a teensy bit of motivation or inspiration to incorporate them into your everyday experiences. You’ll be a better person by being a better listener, I promise. So let’s try to sharpen our listening skills together by practicing the below:
1) Minimize distractions and stay engaged. These days, it’s so easy for people to lose themselves in technology. Cell phones, iPads, headphones listening to podcasts or music. People can’t seem to even go out with a friend to catch up without using their phones. Block out distractions. When you’re distracted by technology, it makes others feel rather unimportant. Look at the speaker. And if you’re in school, sit near the front of the class. Why? Because sitting in the back, you hear and see EVERYTHING. I mean it. From people online shopping to browsing and reading articles to being on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, writing their other class paper/studying for a midterm for another class, people texting or people coughing, sneezing and wheezing and puffing. It’s hard to piece together information when you’re distracted. You want to get the whole picture and not just isolated bits and pieces. Pay attention. If you’re in a busy area, focus more on the person than what’s going on around you (no, I’m not telling you not to be aware or conscientious of your surroundings, but to selectively have your attention be on the other party).
2) Do not assume. Do not interrupt. Wait your turn to speak. I know it can be very tempting to finish someone’s sentence to show you comprehend what they’re saying, but it can often times come off as being rude. Let the other person finish what he/she wants to say before you make your own comments. Listening to someone builds trust. If you interrupt, even with good intentions, it dismisses the speaker’s chance to fully express his/her feelings or opinions. So to make sure you don’t interrupt, wait a few seconds before responding.
3) Ask questions. Part of being a good listener is being able to regularly ask thoughtful questions. These questions could be to clarify what the speaker had just said. Ask them to repeat or rephrase what they said. You can also make sure you relay that you understood and were listening by rephrasing the speaker.
Example: So long time ago, like the summer before ninth grade began, I was in an office volunteering with a group of friends. We took a break from brainstorming and decided to fool around with the treadmill. I saw some of my friends get on the treadmill behind a friend who was on the treadmill. When my sister got on the treadmill, I also wanted to try it so I climbed onto the treadmill, thinking I’d be quick enough to hop on right behind her. It was a short second after that I felt my knees and elbows scrape hard against the machine and felt myself at the point of no return in hoisting myself up and fell with a loud thud on the ground, not even knowing what had hit me.
Now, to paraphrase the above, you would probably say something like: “Okay, so back in the summer before high school, you were volunteering with a group of friends and playing around with the treadmill and decided to get on the treadmill behind your sister and you fell…” Something along those lines to ensure you grasped what the speaker had said and the speaker knows you listened and/or may add further details.
Before we carry on, no, I did not make up the story. The above is a true story. We can talk about that…offline. The point being, when you reach a pause in a conversation, don’t hesitate to ask a question that may clarify a previous point or question that helps to dig a bit deeper into the topic of conversation.
4) Remember body language, too! In addition to the occasional “hmm…” or “yeah” or “I agree” verbal communication you may deliver to indicate you are grasping information, don’t forget that body language also conveys a huge message. It reveals your interest or disinterest in something or someone. When you’re actively listening to someone or having an interview with an organization, you want to lean slightly forward, make eye contact and show your enthusiasm. You want to smile and have an occasional nod that will show you are engaged and interested. This is no different. Other body language actions such as crossing your arms, putting your hands in your pockets, fidgeting or looking down at the ground are forms of nervous behavior. Try to avoid doing them when you’re in an interview, in class or at a networking event. They’re sort of tiny physical barriers that may discourage others from approaching you.
5) Be aware of your reactions to others. This is an extension to #4. Good, effective listeners do not just avoid or block out negative criticism. They want to listen and develop an understanding of what the other is trying to convey before they respond. Take for an example, when you’ve completed a class presentation and someone in class asks you a question. You want to really listen to the question entirely before you make up an answer that is nowhere close in answering said question. I’ve witnessed it too many times to count. I’ve seen people freeze up, looking offended/attacked and rather than listening to the rest of the question, stop midway and thinking hard and fast of what to say next. Inappropriate faces of shock or disbelief ruins conversation. The difference between a good and bad listener can be the response time. Just because you decide to answer sooner doesn’t make it a quality answer. Quality over quantity applies here, too. Don’t be afraid to take a step back for a moment–recollect your thoughts before responding.
6) Put yourself in the person’s shoes. Good listeners do not only listen with their ears, but also with their eyes and their heart. Good listeners care. Unfortunately, we have more people who listen to prepare for their reply than listening to comprehend.
Stop focusing on what you’re going to say next because it distracts you from listening 100% and it hinders conversation. Focus on the speaker’s story and ask yourself, what if you were telling the story/lecture/etc? How would you feel if others were just fumbling with their keys or phones or staring off into space? You don’t have to necessarily agree with the speaker wholeheartedly (I know I sure as heck don’t with everyone I speak with, but have an open mind, will ya?), but put yourself in their shoes and imagine how they feel. Look at things from their perspective to understand their point of view and why they are saying the things they are saying.
When someone is upset or venting, a lot of us “listen” by sharing our own experiences (guilty as charged–and that is actually talking, not listening). Or we try to help them fix a problem (not listening either). The best way to listen is to let them talk and then ask questions. Let them get their anger and frustration out and then pose questions like, “what are you most upset about?” or “what are you really stressed about?” They will feel heard and you might just get to the root of the problem. Oh, and do everyone a favor and please avoid the most cliche line ever: “I know exactly how you feel” because chances are, you don’t. You sound kind of insensitive and self-centered.
7) Silence can be golden. Oh what if there’s a lull or two at some point in the conversation you ask? Well, that’s fine too. It can be uncomfortable, but don’t be afraid to take a moment to have a silent pause. The person speaking may be collecting his/her thoughts. Be patient. Give yourself and them a moment to absorb and reflect. Sometimes it takes time for a person to formulate what they want to say and how to say it.
8) It’s conversation, not debate club. You know people who love to make these witty comments for every single thing someone else utters? Stop it. It’s not high school debate club and not every conversation needs some sort of person to step in to one-up every statement the speaker is saying. So many are readily on their feet to reject statements that contradict their views so much so that they try to begin a verbal battle before even understanding what the other has just said. Be impartial. Or at least try. Don’t become irritated or distracted by a person’s habits or mannerisms to the point of missing the real message. Sometimes, humans just want to have a relaxed conversation where they aren’t judged or criticized, but heard. Don’t view having a different viewpoint as an attack. We have different priorities, values, morals–what a big shocker. Great listeners RESPECT another.
9) Good listeners follow a code of confidentiality. Good listeners are trustworthy and sensitive with information they received and do not go looking to use it for any purpose less than good. How would you feel if you confided in someone and they spread it around like wild fire? Don’t do it. Do not be that person.
10) Follow-up conversations show the real you. You know interviews and the whole email thank you follow-up? You want to thank the interviewers for their time, recapping your interest and a little bit about what you discussed and what you particularly enjoyed or took away from conversing with them. You do the same here with good people and conversations you have. Good listeners remember. They remember conversations and follow-up wherever and whenever possible. This sets you apart from the rest of the crowd. I find very few people do this. When you tell someone something and weeks or months go by and they contact you about something you told them, asking if you remember or bringing up something because it reminded them of you, how does that make you feel? Special? You bet. It’s fine to be the person who initiates a conversation first. It’s fine to tell someone that you’re thinking of them. It’s nice. What if they were looking to find a chance to reach you, too?
Listening is an essential part of a good conversation. When your listening skills improve, conversations will run deeper, may become more involved and it might even be shorter in length due to the use of appropriate pauses enabling speakers to complete entire thoughts before being questioned or interrupted. By being a good listener, you will be more appreciated by the people you talk to because people will love your company, you will learn more as a result of new insights and your relationships with others will be more harmonious. Let’s make a promise to each other, that the next time we converse with someone, we will try to listen more. Let the person speak their mind.