In today’s high-tech, high-speed, high-stress world, communication is more important then ever, yet we seem to devote less and less time to really listening to one another. Genuine listening has become a rare gift—the gift of time. It helps build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy. At work, effective listening means fewer errors and less wasted time. At home, it helps develop resourceful, self-reliant kids who can solve their own problems.
Here are 10 tips for developing effective listening skills.
Step 1: Face the speaker and maintain eye contact.
In most Western cultures, eye contact is considered a basic ingredient of effective communication. When we talk, we look each other in the eye. Do your conversational partners the courtesy of turning to face them. Put aside papers, books, the phone and other distractions. Look at them, even if they don’t look at you. Shyness, uncertainty, shame, guilt, or other emotions, along with cultural taboos, can inhibit eye contact in some people under some circumstances. Excuse the other guy, but stay focused yourself.
Step 2: Be attentive, but relaxed.
Mentally screen out distractions, like background activity and noise. Don’t be distracted by your own thoughts, feelings, or biases.
Step 3: Keep an open mind.
Listen without judging the other person or mentally criticizing the things he/she tells you. Listen without jumping to conclusions. Remember that the speaker is using language to represent the thoughts and feelings inside his/her brain. You don’t know what those thoughts and feelings are and the only way you’ll find out is by listening. Don’t be a sentence-grabber by interrupting and finishing another person’s sentences: chances are, you’ll land way off base, because you’ll be following your own train of thought without learning, where the speaker’s thoughts were heading to.
Step 4: Listen to the words and try to picture what the speaker is saying.
Allow your mind to create a mental model of the information being communicated. Whether a literal picture, or an arrangement of abstract concepts, your brain will do the necessary work if you stay focused, with senses fully alert. When listening for long stretches, concentrate on, and remember, key words and phrases.
When it’s your turn to listen, don’t spend the time planning what to say next. You can’t rehearse and listen at the same time. Think only about what the other person is saying.
Step 5: Don’t interrupt and don’t impose your “solutions.”
Interrupting sends a variety of messages. It says:
- “I’m more important than you are.”
- “What I have to say is more interesting, accurate or relevant.”
- “I don’t really 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.”
We all think and speak at different rates. If you are a quick thinker and an agile talker, the burden is on you to relax your pace for the slower communicator.
When listening to someone talk about a problem, refrain from suggesting solutions. If you are absolutely bursting with a brilliant solution, at least get the speaker’s permission. Ask, “Would you like to hear my ideas?”
Step 6: Wait for the speaker to pause to ask clarifying questions.
When you don’t understand something, of course you should ask the speaker to explain it to you. But rather than interrupt, wait until the speaker pauses. Then say something like, “Back up a second. I didn’t understand what you just said about…”
Step 7: Ask questions only to ensure understanding.
At lunch, a colleague is excitedly telling you about her trip to Vermont and all the wonderful things she did and saw. In the course of this chronicle, she mentions that she spent some time with a mutual friend. You jump in with, “Oh, I haven’t heard from Alice in ages. How is she?” and, just like that, discussion shifts to Alice and her divorce, and the poor kids, which leads to a comparison of custody laws, and before you know it an hour is gone and Vermont is a distant memory.
This particular conversational affront happens all the time. Our questions lead people in directions that have nothing to do with where they thought they were going. Sometimes we work our way back to the original topic, but very often we don’t.
Step 8: Try to feel what the speaker is feeling.
If you feel sad when the person with whom you are talking expresses sadness, joyful when she expresses joy, fearful when she describes her fears—and convey those feelings through your facial expressions and words—then your effectiveness as a listener is assured. Empathy is the heart and soul of good listening.
Step 9: Give the speaker regular feedback.
Show that you understand where the speaker is coming from by reflecting the speaker’s feelings. “You must be thrilled!” “What a terrible ordeal for you.” “I can see that you are confused.” If the speaker’s feelings are hidden or unclear, then occasionally paraphrase the content of the message. Or just nod and show your understanding through appropriate facial expressions and an occasional well-timed “hmmm” or “uh huh.”
Step 10: Pay attention to what isn’t said—to nonverbal cues.
Face to face with a person, you can detect enthusiasm, boredom, or irritation very quickly in the expression around the eyes, the set of the mouth, the slope of the shoulders. These are clues you can’t ignore. When listening, remember that words convey only a fraction of the message.