Most problems in relationships or projects come down to a communication breakdown, so learning to be a better listener is imperative.
Interestingly, we only spend 45% of our communicative energy actually listening. The rest of the time we’re either talking, reading what is being communicated to us or writing something to convey our thoughts.
How can we be sure that we’re doing a good job of completely absorbing the information and understanding the context it’s being presented in if we’re only listening 45% of the time?
Some people have a natural talent or preference for listening – referred to as auditory learners. They can sit down and listen to a lecturer, a teacher or a friend and are able to retain detailed information and understand the nuances of what’s being said or deliberately not said.
Others, however, feel the need to express more of themselves so they end up speaking more than listening. There are a number of reasons why people end up talking a lot – extrovert, nervous talking, fear of silence, excitement, not feeling heard, lacking social interaction, self-focused, ego-based insecurities etc etc.
Take a moment to reflect on these. You’ll probably find you do some of them in different situations and/or around certain people. Ask yourself what might be underneath that behaviour.
Seven tried and tested techniques to become a better listener
It feels wonderful when someone has really heard and understood you because they have been listening carefully to you, doesn’t it?
Actively listening to others develops strong bonds of rapport, trust, intimacy and connection and is therefore a vital ingredient to every successful relationship. Being able to listen well is a real gift.
So, what can you do to help improve your listening skills to become a better listener and therefore the quality of your relationships?
1. Stop talking
This is perhaps the easiest and most obvious, yet most overlooked, of all the aspects of effective listening. When you’re speaking, clearly you’re not in a position to actively listen to the other person.
Consciously tell yourself to stop talking and just listen. You can visualise a stop sign to give yourself a mental cue.
2. Give the speaker your full attention
Even if it’s just a casual chat or a formal lecture, you must give the speaker your undivided attention to not miss a single detail of what they’re saying. To do this, face your speaker, look them in the eye (though not too intensely, as this can be intimidating), and try to filter out other distractions from your environment.
If you feel like you’re in a distracting environment, give your surroundings a quick glance before the speaker speaks in order to satiate your curiosity. Once the speaker is already talking, mentally block out distractions like the flurry of people or the noise from outside.
Being distracted can give the impression that you’re bored or not interested in what the person is saying. Try to take in the whole message the speaker is conveying.
3. Don’t interrupt
Interruption can happen both in your mind and by speaking. You may notice that there are times when you try to finish the speaker’s sentence for them. You are following your own train of thought, and hoping that the speaker comes to the same conclusion as you. However, this only hinders your listening skills as you’re listening to your own train of thought.
As a rule of thumb, don’t make assumptions about what the speaker is saying. Clear your mind, and treat each new piece of information from them as something new. Leave your prejudgments, assumptions and preconceived notions at the door, and listen to the speaker with a clear and open mind.
Who is the speaker? What’s it like to be in their shoes for a day and particularly in the situation they’re discussing? What emotions are they conveying as they’re telling their story.
At first it may be hard to pick up on this, but there are nonverbal clues to help – tone of voice, body language, eye contact, congruence (do their words match their non-verbal communication), what’s not being said, etc.
- A smile or higher pitched voice may already tell you that they’re talking about something happy or humorous.
- A frown, slumped shoulders or eyes that are downcast may tell you that their story fills them with sadness, confusion or conflict.
- A businesslike and formal tone may tell you that their topic has something to do with their profession or that they’re potentially burying emotions and trying to be stoic.
You may not always perceive nonverbal cues accurately, but they can at least give you some initial cues as to how you can empathise with what the speaker is going through or saying.
After the speaker has opened the topic for discussion, you can piece together their emotions and experience so that you can empathise more completely.
- If you respond by saying: ‘It sounds like…’ or ‘it seems like…’ rather than saying: ‘You must have felt…’ or ‘that must have been terrible for you’ gives the speaker an opportunity to correct you without feeling like you haven’t heard them.
5. Remember important keywords
- What is the speaker’s story about?
- Where is this happening?
- When did it happen?
- What are the important things that happened in the story?
- Who are the key characters in the story?
These are the things that you need to take note of. Listen out for the words or phrases that the speaker emphasises or repeats because they will be important to their story.
Once you have a clear idea of the main characters and events in the speaker’s story, you’ll find it much easier to relate to the different levels of communication. If they’ve been discussed in previous conversations, you’ll also have a richer context in which to understand the speaker’s experience and emotions.
6. Picture what is being said
Some of us are more visually oriented, and the process of listening to words can feel like a struggle. If you’re more visually inclined, picture the details of what the speaker is saying. Pay attention to descriptive words that can help you imagine what’s transpiring in their story.
Having a mental image of what’s being said can make it easier to keep the details in your active memory. This is another reason why it’s important to be fully present and not thinking about what you’re going to say next.
In a more formal setting like a business meeting or a lecture, you may come across abstract terms that are hard to visualise. To better retain information, you can use a rough chart or diagram to take note of the relationships between each idea. This way, you can pinpoint how one topic affects the other, and you can see the whole picture with more clarity.
Ask the speaker to describe it to you again if you’re having trouble visualising something clearly.
This is not a parroting of what the person has said. Initially, it’s a mental recap of what the speaker said, and if you think you’ve missed something, don’t be afraid to ask the speaker to clarify or repeat a particular part of their story.
However, make sure that you ask when the speaker has paused, as interrupting them in the middle of their train of thought is not only counter-productive to your listening, but could cause a disconnect between you and the speaker.
Once the speaker has finished speaking, you can then discuss their key points and the emotions you observed while they were telling their story, as well as adding your own input on the story.
For example, the speaker told you the story of his travel experience in Rome. You, as an effective listener, can quickly summarise his story by saying something like: ‘Oh my goodness, so you went on a tour around Rome, which you thought was stunning, but you didn’t get a single photograph because your phone’s battery was dead? How unlucky! I can really hear your frustration and disappointment. What did you do?’
You are recapping the key points, focusing on the feelings expressed through tone and body language and then asking an open-ended question to invite the person to tell you more.
When you’re able to effectively listen to another person, not only are you showing them the courtesy of your attention, but you’re also giving yourself the opportunity to learn something new about a topic or way of thinking and connecting more deeply with the person who’s talking.
We often spend so much time waiting for our turn to speak in conversations that we end up missing the opportunity to open our minds and hearts to another person’s experiences, thoughts, ideas and emotions. And then we miss the opportunity to really connect with that person. And connection with others is where the richness, fun and inspiration of life truly lies.
Wishing you great connection through being a better listener in all of your interactions with others!
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