Written by Brandon George
Learning to listen – I mean really listen – is the single-most important thing you can do to improve communication in your life. It’s unreal how many varied aspects of our lives are directly and indirectly controlled by our ability (or, most often, inability) to listen.
Our romantic relationships run into communication problems everyday. Friendships can get too one-sided and devolve into arguments about taking too much. Even consumerism is dependent upon listening – advertising and referrals help us determine what to buy and where to buy it.
What’s that you say? You’re a great listener? I hate to break it to you, but that’s what we all think. And, as is often the case, we’re all wrong. There’s a big difference between the “passive” listening we offer to others and the “active” listening we hypocritically expect from others. Active listening involves dedicating yourself to improving your listening skills. It involves making a point of being extra vigilant about your reactions, and extra aware of your tendencies.
Hearing is easy. All that takes is a set of ears. We’ve all got them, for the most part (sorry in advance to my sans-eared readers). Listening requires yours ears and your brain. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come naturally to many people.
Ask a crisis hotline volunteer what it’s like to listen. Better yet, become a volunteer yourself. These people get practice in the art of listening every day, and we’d all do well to follow their lead.
So, it stands to reason that if each of us works to become a better listener, everyone will benefit. It’s a sad fact that most people in this world like talking more than listening. I’m the same way. It’s hard not to be; nature and nurture work together to ensure that. But even if we’re hardwired to be self-interested and ego-sensitive individuals, there’s no reason we can’t learn to listen better.
Just like with anything else, becoming a better listener happens one step at a time:
1. Work On Your Body Language
Practice facing the person you’re listening to, maintaining eye contact with them, and maybe even leaning closer toward them. It’s easy for your body language to give off the impression that you’re not listening, so fight that by actively giving a speaker your full attention. If you do this, people will respond more positively to you because you’ll be giving them what they all want: a free therapist (the old-school psychoanalytic type, that is).
2. Analyze Speaker’s Body Language
While it’s helpful to be aware of your own body language, making sure to observe the body language of others is a powerful tool to encourage listening. A huge part of being a good listener is having the ability to empathize, to ask, “How might they feel about this, and can I put myself in their shoes?” By focusing on their body language, you’ll remind yourself that maybe others aren’t so different from you after all. When that comes, people will begin to open up to you even more, because you make them feel secure, cared for and important.
3. Don’t Interrupt
Seriously, let people finish. If you hate it when people interrupt you, do you really think others love it when you cut them off? Stop taking other people for granted. Even if you don’t think you do this, take a step back and re-examine your tendency to interrupt.
This is something I’ve struggled with – and will continue to, I’m sure – for so long. Hell, I’m even aware of it now and still I find myself interrupting people. Or, worse, ignoring them because I’m so concerned about interrupting them. When others see that you’re inviting them to speak, their first instinct will be to open up even more. It’s a positive reciprocal cycle: you’ll help them by acting as a sounding board, and they’ll be more apt to trust you, which leads to better relationships.
4. Encourage Others to Speak
Karma works for listening, too. If you encourage others to speak, chances are you’ll reap the benefits of that somewhere down the road. Nod when others speak, or use affirming words like “Yeah” and “Right.” Doing these things triggers positive responses in others – you’re consistently reminding them that they’re being heard, which means they’ll appreciate your confidence and interest in them.
Restate what you’re hearing from another person, and do it in your own words. Or, at the very least, precede your responses with, “I hear you’re saying?” or “It sounds to me like you?” Not only does this disarm people, it can prevent or defuse any misunderstandings, which is especially useful for potentially hostile situations. Learn the right times to mirror others. Better yet, learn how to do it so well that they won’t even know you’re doing it. See how much more engaging and productive your conversations are with people if you just throw them a bone and explicitly show them that you’re listening.
6. Avoid Arguments
As much as we’d all like to sometimes, we can’t go around picking fights – or even giving in to them. Find catharsis in restraint and in your temper. If you find yourself looking to avoid arguments, you’ll stop worrying about yourself so much and focus on the concerns of others. It will be easier to communicate with them on equal footing. This sets the stage for helpful, enjoyable conversations, as opposed to vengeful, invalidating ones.
7. Notice the Little Things
The key to any person’s heart is through details. Humans are naturally inclined to focus on a detail rather than the big picture. That’s because details resound more strongly within us – the more we know about something, the more we’re apt to empathize with it. This idea is especially true in advertising. We’re bombarded with over 3,000 unique ad messages every day, so how can advertisers get us to notice them? By giving us some detail about a product that we can use to humanize it, and make it more personal.
Remember, though, we first have to be interested in the product, so always make sure that you remind others how much you care about the little things in their lives. All it takes is the occasional remark or simple, unexpected gesture.
8. Don’t Try to Solve Other People’s Problems (unless they ask)
Men are often guilty of this, and I’m probably more guilty of this than any man on Earth. I was raised to be a problem solver. In my family, solving your own problems is a badge of honor. It’s a way to prove your ability to handle “real life.” And that’s great, up to a certain point. But as soon as you start venturing into the realm of solving other people’s problems, you’ve crossed a line if you’re offering unsolicited advice.
We all have problems. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Just don’t go donning your superhero problem-solver cape every time somebody tries to talk to you. Sometimes people just want to talk?and talk?and be heard. So remember to leave room in your heart and in your head for the restraint to be “there” for someone without trying to solve all their problems.
9. Don’t Judge
If someone isn’t honest with you, it’s probably because they feel you’re going to judge them and make them feel inadequate. Maybe you’ve done that in the past. If so, that stops now. Humans are naturally terrified of rejection, so it’s vital to give others the same kind of affirmation that we’d want for ourselves. Reassuring other people that you’ve got an open mind is a good way to avoid judging and to establish trust.
10. Be Honest
Honesty is everything. If I’ve claimed that anything is more important to listening than honesty, then I was wrong. Truth begets truth, but being truthful is so terrifying, because it means trusting others with the important facts of our lives. But how can you expect honesty if you yourself refuse total, brutal honesty. Sure, there are times when white lies are okay, and sometimes even the best choice, but in situations where you’re demanding the truth, you’d do well to offer the truth first. There’s no greater feeling in the world than knowing you can confide in someone. Well, except for knowing they can confide in you.
Keep these thoughts in mind. Practice them on a daily basis. There’s nothing people love more than being listened to. That’s in part why so many people visit therapists and counselors. The more objective, active and engaged listener you work to be, the more fulfilling your conversations will become.
All it takes is two ears, a brain, and a little effort and empathy.
I think we can all manage that.
These skills are crucial to workplace communication. Those who are interested in deeper study of workplace communication might consider coursework from a masters in organizational development program, such as that offered by Saint Joseph University online.