Good talkers can be found in every boardroom, classroom, and everywhere in between. Good listeners, on the other hand, are hard to come by. Listening has turned into an art form. With so many distractions and advertisements pulling you in so many directions, people have learned to just tune out. This has compromised our ability to have conversations resulting in us treating people the same way that we treat online banner ads.
This is not a new phenomenon. I’m not saying that prior generations were better listeners and were always actively engaged in conversation with one another. However, without the technology we’ve grown up with today, a thoughtful conversation was a form of entertainment.
This reminds me of a quote from the movie Fight Club (1999) between Edward Norton and Marla Signer.
Edward Norton: When people think you're dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just...
Marla Singer: Instead of just waiting for their turn to speak?
Has this ever happened to you? You're having a conversation with someone and something comes to mind that you must get out right away. Everything that’s said after your thought has been lost or tuned out, unintentionally.
It's difficult to be a better listener. It actually takes effort. Unlike passive conversation, listening intently and asking thought-provoking questions and answers is an active form of communication. If you’ve gotten this far, you're up for the challenge. Most people focus on developing their speaking skills for presentations, public speaking, and pitching ideas.
But now you’ll be one of the few who will focus on the listening skills that commonly get overlooked.
Here are your top 10 habits to become a better listener:
1. Pay Attention
People’s number one problem with listening is that, well, they actually don’t. They are easily distracted by outside forces, like playing with their phone, thinking of something else, and are usually everywhere but present in the conversation. Pay attention to the person in front of you by facing them while they speak and avoid outside distractions. Nod your head during the conversation and keep general eye contact to show your interest.
2. Stay Focused
Next time you’re in a conversation, dedicate yourself solely to that person. Listen to what they have to say by offering your time. Give them your undivided attention so they feel you’re devoted to them. Through actively listening, a better listener will make them feel what they have to say is important. By staying focused, the conversation will come easy. Coming up with good questions is very difficult when you’ve only heard half the conversation.
Find different points where there is a pause in conversation that you can paraphrase what has been said. Show the speaker that you’ve actually been listening by repeating in your own words what they said. A better listener can do this by asking for clarification/elaboration on something or confirming what has been said for better understanding.
4. Give feedback
Give feedback during the conversation without interrupting. Reassure the speaker of how they must have felt during the situation they are describing. “Oh, you must have been so distraught/scared/surprised”, “That sounds like so much fun!” etc.
Ask thoughtful questions about how they must have been feeling and try to connect with their experience (without talking about your similar experience). Let them relive the experience the way they felt.
“So if you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments.” ― Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People
5. Be Genuinely Interested
Exhibit genuine interest in the speaker. The easiest way to do this is to actually be interested in what they have to say. Be open to learning and curious about new ideas. You don’t have to agree with the speaker, but wanting to learn and understand what they are saying will show interest.
This will also help you understand other people’s point of view and may even change your way of thinking.
6. Pay Attention to Non-Verbal Cues
During a conversation, non-verbal cues will provide you with as much, if not more, information than what the speaker is actually saying. Pay attention to his tone, body language, and facial expressions to give you a sense of their emotions and how he’s feeling. Respond accordingly by mirroring their emotions through your posture, facial expressions, and language.
If someone is upset about a situation, don’t start speaking loudly at her! Show empathy and understanding of what she is going through. Put yourself in her situation and try to understand how she must have felt (again, NOT how you would feel in the same situation).
7. Lean into being Quiet
They key to becoming a better listener is the opposite of good speaking… lean into being quiet!
You can do this by paying attention to what the speaker is saying, instead of trying to “guess” what’s coming next. Let the conversation roll out rather than jumping ahead. The biggest mistake you can do is to try and finish their sentence for them because most of the time you’ll be wrong.
The brain can process listening to words twice as fast as the speaker can speak them. Don’t try and rush ahead of the conversation, let the speaker guide the conversation at their own pace.
8. Don’t Multi-Task
It’s now scientifically proven that our brains cannot multi-task effectively. And those of us who think, “Yes, this applies to everyone else, but I’m good at it!”. You are wrong.
I’ll be honest; I was one of those naysayers at first and felt I could juggle many tasks at once. But looking back at it, you never really accomplish anything and your attention is significantly divided. Apply the same principals to listening. Instead of thinking of what you're going to say next, just listen patiently until it’s your turn to speak.
9. Avoid Offering Advice
In general, don’t offer your advice on the situation unless asked to. A lot of times people just need to speak out loud to be able to come to a conclusion. They usually want to figure out their problems themselves and will tend to disagree with what you suggest.
If you must offer your opinion, ask first: “Would you like to hear what I think”, but use this sparingly.
10. Don’t Steer The Conversation
The speaker is there to steer the conversation how they see fit. Take note not to ask questions that will lead away from the topic at hand. What usually happens is you’ll end up talking about something completely different from what the speaker intended to discuss. If the conversation does fall off track, learn to steer it back by asking them to tell you more about what you were initially discussing and give them a moment to get back on track.
Become a better listener; let people speak to their heart's content. Having a genuine interest in what they have to say will increase your likeability and they might even claim that you’re a great person to talk to! Even if you only did a small percentage of the talking.
People are always more willing to listen after they’ve said everything they had to say. If you want to be heard, let the other person speak until they’ve said their piece. You can read more about why leaders speak last in our upcoming post: 6 Habits of Highly Successful Leaders (That You’ve Never Heard Of Before)
Attentive listening will help you in social situations, at work, and even networking. I hope these 10 tips have helped inspire you to become a better listener.
Your Action Plan Challenge Choose three tips from above and write them down in your agenda, calender, notepad or desktop. Conscientiously execute these tips over the next week when you're in conversations with coworkers, family and friends. If you think of it write down quick notes after your conversation.
Did you notice a difference in the speakers reactions?
Were you able to provide better insight through active listening?
Keep this up throughout the next couple weeks and try different listening tactics to see how they work out for you. Good luck.