How to be a good listener (and a better communicator)

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How to be a good listener (and a better communicator)

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Listening skills aren’t easy for a lot of us, especially during a global pandemic when we’re especially stressed and easily distracted. The art of communication is more than just talking; it requires listening and paying attention. You have to learn how to be a good listener, as most of us aren’t born with it.

Every relationship you have needs communication to survive, and that takes work. The good news is that it’s not hard to learn how to be a good listener. In fact, if you’re someone who feels like you could use a brushing up on your communication skills, here are a few pointers that you can start using right away to help you have more meaningful connections in all of your relationships.

1. Validate Feelings

Have you ever had someone tell you that you’re overreacting or to stop crying during a conversation? I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard that at one point in our lives. The thing is, it doesn’t feel good to be dismissed by someone you care about, especially in times of heightened stress or intense discussion.

Feelings matter, regardless if you agree with them or not. One of the greatest things you can do for someone is to validate their feelings when you’re learning how to be a good listener. Tell them that you hear them and that you acknowledge how they feel [1] . When you do that, you’re creating a relatability element by showing you understand the other person’s feelings.

When you can be more relatable to someone you care about, it raises the level of trust in your relationship. Back in March, when the pandemic started, my eight-year-old son was struggling with virtual learning away from his friends and school that he loved so much. There was no closure for him, and it was apparent in the way he approached is day as he refused to acknowledge school because it wasn’t physically in his classroom.

Most days included a breakdown of some kind, which was very stressful for all of us. One day he was laying on our living room couch, crying about how awful the situation was for him. “I want to go to school and see my friends. I miss my teacher. This is the worst thing ever,” he sobbed. As I watched him in that moment, I realized I had two choices: I could tell him to stop it, suck it up, and go to school, or I could get in it with him and help him understand that I, too, was experiencing the exact same feelings.

I decided to sit with him and take him in my arms, hug him, and tell him I felt the same way. That I wanted him to be in school with his friends, that I wanted him to be able to go to soccer practice and have fun, that I missed my friends, too, and that yes, you’re right, this is the worst.

Once I did that, something shifted. He looked at me with the realization that I did understand what he was going through because I had a similar experience. Demonstrating relatability, validating his feelings, and being a good listener to his needs helped us have a breakthrough in our communication.

2. Be Present

Distraction is all around us. With lots of information being thrown at us at a million miles an hour, it’s no wonder communication in relationships can suffer. When you are in a discussion with someone you truly care about, whether it’s your life partner, a good friend, or you child, make sure you are free of distraction during your conversation.

Having little to no distraction allows you to be a better listener. It allows you to focus on the conversation and really digest the discussion. Furthermore, it helps in allowing you to be thoughtful and considerate in your interaction.

I find that my most successful conversations [2] happen on neutral ground. It helps to reduce stress and remove judgement from the interaction. Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been on walks, while driving in the car, or even laying in bed with the lights off. I can be fully present and engaged with the ability to absorb the conversation at hand, especially when the conversation is about a sensitive subject.

It’s hard to have an uncomfortable conversation sitting across a table or not in your own territory. It can make it feel more like an interrogation and can often start with apprehension or having your guard up. When you do your best to eliminate that from the situation, you’re offering a desire to find a solution by creating a safe space to listen and communicate more successfully.

We tend to expose ourselves and our feelings easier when we feel like we’re not being judged. When my husband and I need to have a hard conversation, we often go for a walk or have a conversation in the middle of the night in the dark. The absence of distraction allows us to truly listen to each other’s needs and desires and creates a stronger bond of respect and intimacy.

3. Respond

As you’re trying to learn how to be a good listener, respond, don’t react. How many times have you regretted the way you reacted to a conversation with someone you care about? Whether it’s a personal or professional relationship, the way you reply is important.

Because we’re human and it’s only natural to get defensive, especially if the communication is not something we agree with, we typically react without giving consideration to the big picture. That isn’t helpful when you’re trying to make progress in a situation.

You may be thinking, how does listening come into play when you’re replying to someone else’s engagement with you? It doesn’t matter if you’re having that conversation via text, email, or in person; the way you absorb the information is going to directly affect the way you have your interactive dialogue.

Think about a time when you’ve been at work and received an email from a co-worker that triggered you [3] . It’s happened to all of us. A lot of times, we hit the reply button and go to town unloading our feelings and thoughts without taking the time to fully digest and consider the content in front of us. We’re not “listening” to what our peer is requesting.

Handling delicate situations can be tricky. That’s why I like to advise my clients to respond rather than react, and start with the end in mind. When you’re faced with a challenging situation, think about how you want that particular experience to be resolved. Do you want to be able to walk away with a hug, an agreement, and a positive outcome? If so, the way you do that is by being a good listener and planning your response.

Final Thoughts

Communication in any relationship, personal or professional is hard. We have to be committed to showing up and doing the work to make sure they are successful and thriving. Learning how to be a good listener plays a huge part in the success of each and every one.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you need to pay attention, remember to validate, be present, and respond with thoughtful consideration. You’ll be amazed at how much your interactions improve.

How to be a good listener (and a better communicator)

Some people have an innate ability to command the room. They know how to get their point across in a group without barking orders or dominating the conversation—they are good at talking and listening.

But good communication skills don’t grow overnight; good communication takes planning, preparation and consistent practice. So we asked the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) for their 10 best tips to be better at communicating to help you. Which one will you try first?

1. Give a valuable takeaway.

Whether you’re giving a talk or participating in a group discussion, decide on one thing that will really deliver value—an actionable item that people can walk away with. This is especially important when we have to speak up to critique or correct an idea that’s going around, because when you’re not adding value, it’s no longer constructive criticism; it’s just dissenting.

2. Be a good listener.

Being a good listener is the key. Don’t go in with the sole objective to just speak. As the conversation goes on, listen and respond, incorporating your points into the response. People are more willing to listen if they believe they’re being listened to.

3. Pick an opportune time to speak.

The best way to ensure your voice is heard in a group is to pick your spots, meaning find a gap within the conversation to speak, no matter how many people are involved. By selecting the most opportune time to speak, you can ensure that you have the attention of the group and can get your entire message across without being interrupted.

4. Be the unifying voice.

Discussions can often drag on and turn circular. By stepping in and first unifying all the best thoughts, you get people to calm down. Once they’ve calmed down, you can insert your point and it will resonate with people. The more influential people are, the more important this becomes.

5. Keep your responses succinct.

Keep it simple when responding in groups. This shows you have respect for others’ time. A long, drawn-out answer to a question is not only inconsiderate, but you lose their interest in what you have to say. Short, snappy answers that get right to the heart of the issue will help get your point across and be remembered in the process.

6. Don’t be the person who needs to comment on everything.

You’ll be respected more in a group if you have a reputation for kicking in only when you have something important to say. It’s easy to tune out the people who make some reflex comment on almost any situation, but someone who rarely talks usually catches attention when they have something to say.

7. Cut the fluff.

When speaking in a group, you need to make the most of the small amount of time you are given to speak. This means you need to get straight to the point. In a group setting, anyone who is long-winded will lose the attention of the group and slow the progress of the conversation. Always cut the fluff.

8. Prepare ahead of time.

Public speaking is hard for anyone, and most of us don’t communicate on the fly as well as we’d like. You are much more likely to provide a strong and memorable contribution if you take the time to sort out your points and practice them first. The difference is noticeable. Think closely about what you’re trying to communicate and how that could best and most briefly be said.

9. Smile.

Be positive. If you smile and nod along as other people speak, they will be positive about opening up and letting you speak as well. If they see that you aren’t listening to them but, instead, impatiently waiting for your turn to speak, they won’t pay you any respect.

10. Validate, then share.

It is not enough to just listen. Good leaders need to show their team they actually understood what was being shared. State your team member’s idea back to them to validate it, and then add your own perspective for a productive discourse. People are more open to your ideas and opinions when they feel as if theirs were honored.

It is so easy to talk yet so hard to listen.

Posted Sep 22, 2014

You are probably very well aware that people love to talk! We are a nation of talkers. But when it comes to listening….not so much. We all have our opinions, ideas, and views on things and we typically like to share them with anyone who will listen or even pretend to listen to them. How often have you been in a conversation with someone and they talk at you rather than with you? Or perhaps they talk 90% of the time and you can tell that they are struggling to politely listen during the remaining 10% of the time that you are doing the talking.

How to be a good listener (and a better communicator)

While there are no easy answers to being a better listener there are some useful principles to keep in mind. You might consider using the following 3 strategies if you would like to improve your listening efforts and skills.

1. When in doubt, bite your tongue and shut up!

Most of us talk much more than we should. Use the mantra, less is more! So, if you aren’t sure if you are talking too much, stop and listen. The odds are that you are indeed talking too much and need to listen more.

2. Ask questions!

One way to be a better listener is to ask questions of others. Minimize comments and use more questions in your conversations. If you do so you’ll likely improve your listening skills and will talk less to boot.

3. Watch for that glazed look in someone’s eyes. When you see it stop talking and either ask a question or just listen.

Typically people give you very clear feedback (if you care to notice) that you are talking too much by giving you that glazed look. They might also look at their watch, look behind you or off to the side to see if something more interesting is happening, or get that deer in the headlight look about them. That’s your cue that you are talking too much and need to stop.

How to be a good listener (and a better communicator)

So what do you think? I’m listening!

Check out my web site at www.scu.edu/tplante and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante

How to be a good listener (and a better communicator)

Most of us move through each day engaging in conversations with friends, co-workers, and family members. But the majority of the time, we aren’t listening.

We’re often distracted by things in our environment–both external things like televisions, cell phones, cars, and other people talking, and internal things like our own thoughts and feelings.

We think that we’re listening to the other person, but we’re really not giving them our full and complete attention.

As a licensed therapist and coach, one of the most important things I do for clients is deeply listen to what they’re saying. When you deeply listen with your whole body and mind to what another person is communicating, it helps them feel understood and valued.

One technique that therapists learn in graduate school that aims to provide full and complete attention to the speaker is called active listening.

Active listening builds rapport, understanding, and trust. It’s a proven psychological technique that helps therapists create a safe, comfortable atmosphere that encourages clients to discuss important thoughts and feelings.

Active listening involves fully concentrating on what is being said rather than passively absorbing what someone is saying. It’s not just about remembering the content of what someone is sharing, but actively seeking to understand the complete message–including the emotional tones–being conveyed.

This type of listening involves participating in the other person’s world and being connected to what the other person is experiencing.

That’s a lot of information–much more than you’re used to consciously interpreting in daily conversations. And that’s because many things get in the way of active listening.

People often are selective listeners, meaning that they focus on a few key words and ignore the rest of the person’s communication. They’re often distracted by external stimuli like random sounds or movements, and internal stimuli such as one’s own thoughts and feelings.

In other situations, individuals allow their own biases and values to pick arguments with the other person’s speech rather than remaining focused on their message. They waste valuable time and energy preparing to respond rather than giving their full, undivided attention to the speech.

With all of these challenging layers to active listening, how does one improve these skills?

Read the list below to discover how to become a better listener, and in doing so, become better at navigating relationships and networking opportunities.

1. Avoid internal and external distractions.

Focus on what they’re saying. Don’t allow other thoughts or sounds to sway your concentration.

2. Listen to the content of their speech.

Focus on the specific words they’re using. Each phrase and word choice is something interesting that you should be taking in.

3. Listen to the context of their speech.

What are the over-arching stories and circumstances they are discussing? Are there common themes? What are the unique situations this person finds themselves in and how does that relate to what they’re telling you?

4. Listen to the tone of their voice.

Vocal tones convey a lot about what a person might be feeling. Think about what their vocal tone implies about their feelings. All feelings have a story–learn theirs.

5. Listen for the emotions the speaker is likely experiencing.

The more that you follow and amplify the person’s emotions, the more likely they are to feel understood. With so many people uncomfortable about sharing their feelings, moments of vulnerability can quickly build a deeper connection.

6. Pay attention to their body language and make appropriate eye contact.

With much of communication being non-verbal, it’s incredibly important that you soak in as much information as possible while also showing them–physically–that you are sharing in their experience.

7. Provide small verbal encouragements and don’t fight silences.

Saying small things like, “yes,” “right,” “that makes sense,” and allowing natural silences to occur without filling them due to your own discomfort goes a long way in building rapport.

8. Ask open-ended questions to encourage elaboration.

There’s no substitute for a good question–try to get lengthy responses to understand the big picture.

9. If you need them to slow down or want specific info, ask close-ended questions.

Questions that can be answered in yes or no slow down the pace when you’re feeling overwhelmed and also allow you to gather important details that you missed earlier.

10. Offer affirmations that the person has made valuable and important choices.

Affirmations are like compliments–everyone likes them. Instead of saying, “I’m proud of you,” like a compliment, an affirmation focuses on the other person, “You should be proud of your hard work.”

Start practicing these basic listening skills. They are simple yet powerful ways to facilitate conversation and help others feel understood.

In personal life and in the workplace, self-assessment is a critical skill, but our ability to evaluate our actions and attitudes are not always as honest or accurate as they could be. For example, who doesn’t believe they have great taste or could teach others a thing or two? Depending on the subject, a perception could be shockingly high or dismally low, depending on the individual. So, how would you rate yourself when it comes to listening?

Listening Simplified
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review showed there’s still much to learn about the art of listening. According to the authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, many consider listening successful when it accomplishes at least three things: not interrupting the speaker, using facial expressions to denote listening, and the ability to repeat back what’s been said. Zenger and Folkman found that while we may fall back on these standards, recent research indicates that there’s far more to active listening than many of us acknowledge.

Four Qualities of Good Listeners

  • Listeners ask questions that allow the speaker to share additional knowledge, creating a two-way dialogue.
  • Listeners who remain engaged in a conversation create a safe environment for sharing ideas and discussing options.
  • Listeners share feedback and question prior assumptions, offering the opportunity for dialogue, rather than a full-scale argument.
  • Listeners include skillful feedback throughout the conversation designed to create new ways to consider a situation.

Trampoline Effect
In the article, the authors suggest good listening skills entail building increasing levels of interaction designed to offer an opportunity for the listener and receiver to bounce thoughts and ideas off one another. In order to create such an atmosphere, it’s important to remove potential listening distractions such as phones, email, other people that could interrupt the exchange. The stripped-down scene will make it easier to concentrate on the words, gestures, and body language associated with the conversation. With practice, this level of listening has the ability to not only improve another’s perception of listening but could also make hearing the nuances of the exchange more precise.

Putting it into Action
Much like quick self-assessments, it’s easy to think the following suggestions should be prompt and easy to achieve. After all, we surmise, we’ve been listening our entire life, or have we? True active listening requires that we set our ego, frustrations and busy day aside, something that’s not always as simple as it sounds.

Opening oneself up to these changes will take practice and persistence, but creating a more positive level of interaction means each conversation and exchange has the ability to become something that’s beneficial for both parties. With practice, it may be one of the most important personal and business skills you ever try to master.

This article is brought to you by Staffing Kansas City, a full-service Kansas City employment agency that provides contract-to-hire, direct hire and temporary employment placement services.

Across the country, as protesters fill the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s death, people want to be heard.

Loud voices, demonstrations and chants try to get the message across. But when it comes to communication, how do you really hear what the other person has to say?

“Just as important as wanting to talk is how to listen,” said TODAY’s Al Roker.

“When you just close your mouth and listen — active listening — you hear more than even people are saying. You hear how they’re saying it, put things into context,” added Sheinelle Jones. “You get so much out of it.”

How to be a good listener (and a better communicator)

Sheinelle Jones talks about learning to be an active listener

Active listening involves listening without making judgments or taking a position on an issue, and allowing the speaker to finish without interrupting, according to Psychology Today.

Neuroscience shows that when a speaker and a listener are feeling a connection, their brain waves are actually in sync, said Kate Murphy, author of the recent book, “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.” A psychologist told her it’s like experiencing “snatches of magic.”

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The journalist started researching the art of listening after noticing that people she interviewed seemed surprised she was actually paying attention.

“As a result, people often told me these incredibly personal things, as if they’d been waiting a long time for a listener to tell,” Murphy told TODAY.

“The thing that was so touching is afterwards they would always say — and these are very accomplished people with vast networks of colleagues and family — ‘Oh, thank you so much for listening’ and ‘I can’t believe I told you that.’ And also, ‘I’m so sorry’ — as if they had done something wrong, as if they had taken so much from me, as if listening was too much to ask.”

How to be a good listener (and a better communicator)

TODAY’s Check-in with author and life coach Iyanla Vanzant

Murphy was also struck that many people reported feeling lonely in the presence of others. Anyone who has ever been surrounded by people staring at their phones can relate.

So how can you harness the power of a good listener? Murphy offered these tips to sharpen anyone’s listening skills:

1. Realize listening is the more powerful position

Listening is how you learn about and connect with someone. Once you understand that listening can be more valuable than speaking, you’ll be more in the moment, Murphy said.

“People are so worried about what they’re going to say and as a result, they miss a lot of what the other person is saying,” she noted. “If you haven’t been listening well, you’re not going to respond in a way that really resonates with the other person.”

2. Remember that you already know about you

The goal in every conversation is to find out more about the other person. Resist shifting the chat back to yourself and instead encourage the other person to elaborate. When you leave, Murphy advised asking yourself: What did I learn about that person? How did that person feel about what we were talking about?

It’s fine to share some of your experiences, but beware of making it all about yourself.

Simply talking doesn’t make anyone a good communicator — just like hearing someone doesn’t make us good listeners.

In fact, being a good communicator means being a good listener, according to Aaron Karmin, MA, LCPC, a psychotherapist at Urban Balance. It also means being mindful of your words and tone, and not taking someone else’s tone personally, he said.

Instead, good communicators “choose to ask questions to gain understanding, rather than give explanations to force agreement. They choose to make the implied feelings explicit by responding to the emotions behind the words.”

Good communicators maintain eye contact and pay attention to the other person’s verbal and nonverbal cues, said Karmin, who also pens the popular Psych Central blog “Anger Management.”

They don’t get swept up in defending themselves. “As soon as you defend, you lose.”

Below, Karmin shared strategies for helping readers become better communicators in all areas of their lives, including at home and at work.

1. Take ownership of your reactions.

Karmin often hears clients say, “they made me feel ___ or “I had no choice but to yell back.” But, while you might not love your options, you always have a choice, he said.

You have a choice in how you react, and what comes out of your mouth, he said. “We can choose to catch ourselves about to explain, defend, debate, cajole, nag or antagonize, and choose not to do it.”

For instance, trying to defend yourself is actually futile and usually only backfires. For instance, let’s say your partner states, “You never listen to me.” You defend yourself by saying “Of course, I listen. You said to call the plumber, and I did. Here, you can look at the phone bill.”

This rarely makes the other person change their mind, and all that defending just gets disregarded. What it does cause is more miscommunication and accusations, he said.

2. Ask questions.

Asking questions helps you gain a deeper understanding of the situation and possibly reframe it. Karmin gave these suggestions:

  • “How does that make you feel?
  • What is the worst part?
  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • What would you prefer instead?”

3. Ask for clarification.

If you’re not sure you understand what the other person is saying, repeat your interpretation, and ask if you got it right, Karmin said. You might start with: “So what you are saying is that…”

4. Agree with feelings, not the facts.

You don’t have to agree with the other person’s “facts.” But you can agree with how they feel, and communicate that you’ve heard them, Karmin said.

For instance, you might say: “You sound hurt. That must be painful.” Karmin gave these additional examples:

  • “You sound very ____.
  • I don’t blame you for feeling____.
  • I’d be ____if that happened to me.
  • I’m sorry you’re so ____.
  • It’s awful, isn’t it?”

Remember that “feelings are neither right nor wrong; it’s what we do with them that’s right or wrong.”

5. Set limits.

Maintain boundaries, especially when your talk starts escalating into an argument, Karmin said. “Arguing only fuels hostility and it doesn’t get you heard.” He gave these examples of setting limits:

  • “I never thought of it that way.
  • You’ve got a real problem there. I don’t know what to tell you.
  • That would be nice, wouldn’t it.
  • You may have a point.”

6. Be precise with your own words.

For instance, instead of saying “always” or never,” which tend to have exceptions, clarify that these words are “figurative or feeling words,” Karmin said. So you might say: “It feels like you never listen to me” or “It feels like you always blame me.”

“By adding ‘feels like’ we avoid sidetracking into the exceptions of ‘always’ and ‘never’ occurrences. This ensures we are being clear and more likely to be heard and understood.”

Communicating well is a skill. The above six tips can help you sharpen it.

Last medically reviewed on October 22, 2013

Level up your listening with this simple mindset shift.

How to be a good listener (and a better communicator)

What happens in your mind when you hear the phrase, “We need to talk?” I am literally a professional listener, and still, that phrase puts me on guard. But when another human has something important to share, the best thing we can do is get into a mindset for listening.

Listening has always been a critical human capacity. It’s a common superpower amongst the best leaders, spouses, partners, and friends. Truly listening (without getting defensive) feels like the psychological skill of the moment.

Listening well isn’t about knowing the science of communication, or memorizing a long list of rules. Though the knowledge has merit, it pales in comparison to actually clearing the mental clutter that gets in the way of receiving the essence of what a fellow human can teach us. In this way, listening is about suspending the need to know, in order to learn.

The tendency to overcomplicate what it takes to be a great listener reminds me of the well-known Zen koan about the professor and the cup of tea. There are many versions. Here is how it is written in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1957), a collection of Zen and pre-Zen writings compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912) received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in saved tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’

‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

Though the goal of every conversation is not as lofty as the attempt to understand Zen, we all engage in conversations that have the power to shift our perspective; but that turn into missed opportunities because, like the professor, our minds are muddied.

This is why when I teach workshops on listening I begin with the most foundational first step: Listening to understand. Listening with the intention of understanding what another human is trying to tell us doesn’t guarantee that we will understand. But it is the necessary starting point. Further, it conveys respect, humility, and wisdom.

There’s an exercise I did early in my training as a therapist, and that I now often repeat in workshops with professionals. The group breaks into pairs with one person being the listener, and one person sharing a current challenge.

In stage one, the listener listens with the goal of solving their partner’s problem. Sometimes good suggestions come from this. Sometimes it just feels really annoying. In stage two, the listener listens solely with the goal of understanding. Again, the results vary individual to individual, but in 100% of the cases, the difference between the two listening styles is palpable within minutes.

When the listener is listening with the goal of understanding, one common outcome is that the person sharing often spontaneously comes up with their own solution. Another common outcome is that the listener feels less anxious and more receptive.

Sometimes clients benefit from thinking about the art of listening visually. When listening to another person, they literally imagine a road between them and the person that they are seeking to better understand. With this imagery in mind, they become aware of roadblocks they are placing in their own way, such as defensiveness, distraction, or a knee-jerk desire to problem-solve. They may also become aware of roadblocks they want to keep in the way. While truly listening is a gift, it’s not one we are obligated to give, especially if the person speaking to us is acting in an abusive, or unkind way.

It would be absurd to suggest every conversation deserves our undivided attention and receptive listening mindset. But it serves us and others well to have the capacity to jump into this mindset when necessary, kind, or right.

Leveraging this capacity even 20% of the time is an utter game-changer for individuals, and even for the progress of society. As James Baldwin said, “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” The more power and privilege we are given, the more important it is to remedy ignorance by seeking opportunities to listen with at least as much fervor as we seek opportunities to be heard.

You can’t listen well without mastering the mindset of listening to understand. Though it may seem simplistic, it’s the most common step that gets overlooked, even by, or especially by, “experts.”

I urge you to pick a time to practice this skill this week. Pick one conversation, empty the teacup of your mind, and remind yourself (on repeat as needed), “My goal isn’t to solve or respond. My goal is to understand.” Whatever the outcome, please feel free to drop me a note about how it goes. I’m eager to listen.

Seven steps to gaining understanding and respect.

Listening is much tougher than most people think, and most of us could do it better.

Here are seven elements of listening, all of which we can improve. To listen well, you need to:

Comprehend what’s said.

Many people aren’t clear communicators, so a good listener must untangle the convolutions. And even if the speaker is crystalline, some content may be difficult to grasp. Good listeners know when they must listen intently, and when they can get away with listening “with one ear.” And when they don’t understand something important, even if it’s just because their mind wandered, they’re secure enough to ask for a re-explanation: “I didn’t quite get that. Would you mind repeating that?” On hearing such a request, rarely do speakers think, “How dumb.” More likely, they appreciate that someone cared enough to ask for a re-explanation. And usually, the replay is clearer than the original.

Notice important things not said.

For example, on a first date, it can be instructive and revealing if a person talks only about work, not relationships. Are you good at listening for the important unspoken?

Recognize changes in tone and body language.

Good listeners observe baseline behavior: For example, does the person’s face, voice, and body language appear tense? If so, a good listener might then try to appear particularly relaxed and non-confrontive. More important is to note changes from baseline: For example, if the speaker’s vocal pitch suddenly rises, what he or she’s saying may be emotionally charged. Suddenly crossing his or her arms may indicate defensiveness or dissembling. No such cues are dispositive; they merely alert the good listener. How are you at monitoring the speaker’s face, voice, and body language?

How to be a good listener (and a better communicator)

Consciously decide whether to add input.

The good listener is secure enough to rationally decide whether, in any given situation, to add input or to just listen and possibly ask follow-up questions. Don’t let your desire to impress trump what’s best for the interaction and the desired outcome. In the right situation, restraint can be just as compelling. Do you add content to a conversation only when wise?

Accurately determine whether to think ahead.

It’s natural to think ahead to what you’ll say next. That’s fine when you’re good at predicting what the person will be saying. Good listeners who have learned from experience that their predictions are too often inaccurate restrain themselves from thinking, or speaking, ahead.

Think before responding.

After the speaker has finished, a good listener may take some time before responding. Simply take a few seconds to think or say, “Give me a second to think about that.” Doing either makes a speaker feel that what they’ve put forth merits reflection and that the listener wasn’t just waiting until the speaker finished so that he or she can hold forth.

Know when it’s wise to interrupt.

Interrupting imposes a price: It makes the speaker feel invalidated. Let the person talk. And, as a speaker proceeds, he or she relaxes and is more likely to disclose something he or she might not have planned to earlier. Famed jury consultant Jo Ellen Dimitrius and sports agent Leigh Steinberg have both said that interrupting is the worst thing you can do in a negotiation. I’d temper that by saying that, when dealing with long-winded people or when time is short, some interrupting may be justified, especially when you’re confident that you know what the speaker will say or that enduring the speaker’s additional disquisition will likely yield little value or pleasure.

The takeaway

Perhaps it’s now clearer that good listening is more difficult than meets the ear. As you look back on your experience, is there at least one thing you’d like to do differently?