Relationships are built on communication, and communication is a two-way street. To do so you need to be a good listener. You can’t have a good conversation if you’re always preparing to explain yourself, add in your two cents or tell your own related story. That’s not a meaningful conversation, that’s a monologue!
Good communication requires good listening, but good listening isn’t easy. No doubt you’ve been on the receiving end of a poor listener before. Have you ever poured out your heart to a friend, only to have her completely misunderstand you? Can you recall conversing with someone who only used the time that you were speaking to plan what he was going to say next? Have you ever felt like talking to your partner is like talking to a brick wall?
It’s hard to talk to people who don’t listen well, but to be honest, we’re all guilty of poor listening at times. This is a problem because poor listeners are more likely to end up in conflict. They are also less able to de-escalate a situation and more likely to feel undervalued in relationships.
Often, bad listeners are not even aware that they’re bad, in part because our communication habits are deeply ingrained in us from our childhood. Our habits are a mishmash absorbed from our own personalities, the people we are around, the conflict we witnessed and the ways of communicating we became habituated to. This makes it difficult to identify a bad habit and even harder to break one.
Eight Practices to Make You a Good Listener
It is possible, however, to make a few simple changes to your communication style. If you want to be a good listener and improve your conversations and relationships, you’ll need to intentionally adapt the way you interact with others.
1. Use “Peak Listening”
“Peak Listening,” according to Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson’s The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success, occurs when you have broken through your own defenses and can listen to someone under the assumption that they’re right. Often, poor listeners are quick to feel threatened by a speaker’s tone, words or attitude, and they become eager to defend themselves. Unfortunately, defensiveness stops a conversation from progressing, and both parties leave feeling frustrated and unheard. To achieve “peak listening,” you will have to ignore your feelings of being under attack, even if you are, and engage the other person with the intention that you will find some point on which you can agree. Not only can this technique be disarming to someone who is angry or hurt, but it ensures your own response is based on what the other person said rather than how you felt about it.
2. Don’t Think About Your Response While Listening
One bad listening habit that most people struggle with is planning what they will say while the other person is still talking. Thinking about how you will respond rather than concentrating on the other person’s words is a big problem. It trains your focus on your own thoughts and feelings rather than on the speaker’s. It might make you excellent at speaking your mind, but all the other person will hear in your response is what you missed.
Are you thinking about your next story? Or planning how to phrase your advice? Remind yourself that you’ll have plenty of time to respond once the other person finishes. You can even make space in your conversation for you to collect your thoughts by explaining to the speaker, “I want to think about what you just said before I respond.” This ensures you are giving enough consideration to your answer while assuring your friend that you are being thoughtful rather than zoning out.
3. Ignore Distractions
Distractions can come upon you without warning, and it is often those impromptu distractions that shift your intentional focus away from the speaker. Some people can be distracted by the way a person looks or speaks. Others struggle with distractions in the form of their cell phone going off or a notification scrolling by. Anytime you, as a listener, break eye contact to check your phone, you have just made yourself seem disinterested in the person talking.
If this is something you struggle with, plan to silence or put away your phone to have a conversation. And if something about the speaker is distracting you, focus instead on something neutral so you can continue to hear their words rather than your own inner commentary. Giving the other person your full attention is the basis for any productive and meaningful interaction.
4. “Listen” Nonverbally
As speakers, we naturally look for signs that our listeners are paying attention. Someone whose attention starts to wander or who begins fidgeting or who sits with arms crossed is sending clear signals of disinterest or disagreement. Be sure that these signals are not coming from you. Being a good listener with your nonverbal means making eye contact when necessary, having open body language with head, feet and torso pointed toward the other person and maintaining careful, neutral expressions.
Don’t roll your eyes, cross your arms, turn your head, pull up your nose or smirk while you listen. This negative behavior will make you seem judgmental, condescending or disinterested. If you catch yourself giving a negative nonverbal cue, counteract it with a positive one. Smile, nod your head, open your hands or lean forward. Maintaining your physical interest will also help you stay mentally engaged with the speaker.
5. A Good Listener Asks Clarifying Questions
Sometimes people have difficulty expressing themselves correctly. Other times we do lose focus on what is being said and may not remember well. It’s important to ask questions to clarify what was meant in these cases. The following are examples of good clarifying questions.
“When you said ___, I didn’t understand. Can you explain what you meant?”
“You said ___. Can you provide a specific example?”
“Will you repeat the part about ___ for me?”
Questions like these give the speaker a chance to address the gaps in their own communication while assuring them you want to understand their perspective.
6. Paraphrase What The Other Person Tells You
Repeating what the other person says is another great technique for avoiding misunderstandings. Similar to asking clarifying questions, paraphrasing is more focused on what was said rather than on what you didn’t understand. Sometimes, a person can be saying one thing while you are hearing something completely different. So if you fail to clarify what you hear, you risk a major miscommunication. Paraphrasing is an especially good practice in close relationships or in those that are prone to conflict. Examples include the following.
“I heard you say ___. Is that what you meant?”
“I just want to be sure I understood you. You think that ___.”
“So what you’re saying is ___. Did I understand that correctly?”
7. Be Interested In The Other Person – Don’t Fake It
A good listener believes that others are worthy of their time. If you don’t actually believe this, even your best attempt at good listening will be betrayed by something involuntary. For example, a glance at the clock or an impatient eye roll. If you don’t feel interested in the speaker, find something about them that you like and focus on that. This will help you stay truly engaged as a listener instead of as someone who is faking it.
8. Do Not Judge – Keep An Open Mind
Being a good listener requires keeping an open mind. Now, having an open mind does not mean that you automatically agree with what the other person is saying. However, it does mean that you are willing to listen to everything they are saying and to consider the issue from their point of view.
A lot of times, we are unwilling to fully hear the other person out because we are afraid that they will perceive our listening as an endorsement of their behavior or response. The problem with this viewpoint is that unless a person feels heard or understood, they are not likely to listen to any advice or correction. When we start with an open mind and a determination to understand, even if we don’t agree with how someone might feel such a way, we are more likely to listen better. Judgment is the last thing we want to feel.
The above list is not comprehensive, but it can serve as a good beginning for improving anyone’s listening skills. You’ll need to start with an open mind and a willingness to fully understand another person’s perspective. This mindset will be a strong foundation for you to build on as you add other good listening behaviors into your communication skill set. Chances are, you’ll need to be very intentional about breaking poor listening habits as you work to establish good ones.
References & Further Reading
To become a better listener, make sure to read the following reference materials that inspired me to write this article:
- The excellent 3-part “Listen Up!” series on ArtofManliness.com: Part I, Part II, Part III
- 5 Tips for Becoming a Better Listener by Gretchen Rubin
- Farnam Street first introduced me to The Plateau Effect book via its Peak Listening article