8 Tips to Become a Better Listener
Updated: Nov 1, 2018
We all know that we should listen more and talk less.
We all know that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.
We all know that we need to be more present, focused (and less distracted by devices.)
We all know these things, yet we are all guilty of formulating an answer before others are finished talking. We are all guilty of cutting people off. We all continue to focus on selling our agenda before even considering the perspective of others.
We all have read countless articles about how to be better listeners, but if you are anything like me, you still struggle with the topic.
This article is intended to serve as a reminder for myself, and others, of quick-win tips to be a better, more engaged, listener.
“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
1. Put the device down
Don’t just put the device down, put it away. Completely out of sight.
Our smartphones, iPad, laptops, etc. are killing our focus. Though we all have a love-hate relationship with them, they can dramatically strain a conversation with their mere presence.
Emailing / texting during a conversation is the professional equivalent of texting in driving. Not only are you distracted, but you are also apt to create contention with the people vying for your attention.
2. Face the speaker, maintain eye contact (but don’t be creepy), and be relaxed
Body language can be as important, if not more important, than what is being said in a conversation. Your posture, position, and the objects between you and another person can have a dramatic impact on the tone and context of a conversation.
For example, a performance review given in close proximity and around a round table can take a very different tone the one that takes place from opposing sides of a desk.
To maintain an open dialogue, face the speaker (from an offset position); maintain eye contact (but not in a stare-down / creepy way), and be relaxed! Be aware of your resting face, and of tendencies to furrow your brow or clench your jaw as these expressions can add unintended tension to a conversation.
Oh, and don’t be afraid to smile!
3. Do not interrupt or impose your own solutions
Remember when your kindergarten teacher taught you that it was rude to interrupt? Remember how you never interrupted a coach when they spoke? How have we lost sight of this basic rule of etiquette?
Maybe it's cultural, perhaps it's something else, but we need to get back to the basics. Regardless of the why but be aware that interrupting sends an unintended message:
"I'm more important than you are."
"What I have to say is more interesting, accurate or relevant."
"I don't care what you think."
"I don't have time for your opinion."
"This isn't a conversation, it's a contest, and I'm going to win."
A Senior HR Executive exhibited one of the most impressive listening techniques I have ever experienced. After each statement that I made, he paused for about three seconds, processed what I said, restated to validate comprehension, and then addressed.
Not only did I know that he had heard what I said, but as a speaker, I felt valued in that he took the time to understand what I was trying to communicate.
4. Ask questions for clarification
At lunch, a friend is telling you about a weekend mountain bike expedition and all of the cool things that he or she experienced. During the story, the friend mentions that a mutual friend was also in attendance. You jump in with “..did you hear about [that one dramatic thing from the mutual friend's life..]
Suddenly, the conversation shifts to the shenanigans of this mutual friend and mountain bike trip is a distant memory.
This sort of derailment often happens in conversation and can leave the storyteller feeling deflated and undervalued. If you happen to notice that you have inadvertently derailed a discussion, it is important to take ownership of the derailment, and internationally steer the conversation back to the mountain bike trip.
5. Try to feel what the speaker is feeling
Everyone has different problems, and everyone handles situations differently.
Regardless of what you think you know, it is vital to process information from the perspective of the person speaking.
If you feel anxious with the person with whom you are speaking expresses anxiety, happy when he or she expresses happiness, or sadness when he or she expresses sorrow, the speaker will recognize these emotions in your body language and vocal tonality. He or she will feel that you are in the situation with them, not merely observing from the outside, or attempting to discount how they feel.
Empathy is the foundation is good listening. Check out this video from Brene Brown for a few tips on how to be more empathetic.
6. Get some fresh air or exercise
Get out of the office. Go walk. Get the blood flowing.
Some of the most effective crucial conversations that I have had have taken place on the basketball court, throwing a football, or in the gym. Additionally, these scenarios help people bond in ways deeper than what typically take hold in an office setting.
Conversations held in different space help participants feel relaxed and can also help prevent distraction.
Oh, and “outside” is not a reservable meeting space. It’s always available.
7. Be honest about your limitations
When we hear someone present a problem, it is a natural tendency to want to alleviate the pain. This can often lead to people overcommitting, and promising outcomes that they cannot deliver.
It is better for both parties if you are honest about what can and cannot be done to help resolve a situation.
Additionally, be honest about your ability to invest in a conversation. If you feel as though you are distracted in a conversation, or emotionally unavailable, it is better to communicate the limitation than to have the speaker feel as though you are not engaged.
This may also be a great opportunity to move the conversation outside.
8. Take note of the things not said
Sometimes in a conversation, the words not said can be as important, if not more important, than what is said. For example, during an interview, if a candidate talks about every position that they have held, but excludes a particular point on their resume, it can be particularly revealing.