Developing Better Listening Skills

February 14, 2021

Happy Valentine’s Day!!

I am continuing to learn how to listen better, to communicate better. I have good reason. One of my younger brothers is challenged with three different cancers and has recently made a nursing home his new home. With many staff including nurses and hospice nurses, I find communication  extremely important – with them and particularly with my brother whose life is now shortened.

For me, this latest learning curve is that genuine listening, active or effective listening is a rare gift—a gift of time and attention. It involves using all our senses and helps build relationships, solve problems, increase understanding, and resolve conflicts. At work, effective listening means fewer errors and less wasted time. At home, it helps develop resourceful, self-reliant children who can solve their own problems. From another brother Ron I know that good listening and communication skills build careers and forever friendships.

Here are some tips to help us develop better listening skills.

Keep an open mind.

Listen without judging the other person or mentally criticizing the things they tell you. If what someone says alarms us, go ahead and feel alarmed, but don’t say negative things to yourself. As soon as we indulge in judgmental thoughts, we compromise our effectiveness as a listener.

Listen without jumping to conclusions. Remember that the speaker is using language to represent their thoughts and feelings. We don’t know what those thoughts and feelings are; the only way we’ll find out is by listening.

Be relaxed and attentive.

We can look away now and then, but the important thing is to be attentive. This means:

  • be present
  • direct ourselves
  • pay attention

Don’t be distracted by our thoughts, feelings, or biases. Screen out all distractions, like background noises and activity. Try not to focus on the speaker’s accent or speech mannerisms to the point where they become distractions.

Face the speaker and maintain eye contact.

Eye contact, in our culture, is considered a basic ingredient of good communication. That doesn’t mean we can’t carry on a conversation from across the room, or from another room.  Rather, if the conversation continues for any length of time, we (or the other person) may get up and move. The desire for better communication pulls us together.

Give the other person the courtesy of facing them. Look at them, even if they don’t look at you. Put aside papers, books, computers, etc. And silence mobile phones and put them aside.

Listen to the words, and picture what the speaker is saying.

Allow our minds to create a mental model of the information being communicated. Whether a literal picture, or an arrangement of abstract concepts, our brain will do the necessary work if we stay focused, with all five of our senses fully engaged. When listening for long stretches, concentrate on, and remember, key words and phrases.

When it’s our turn to listen, don’t spend the time planning what to say next. We cannot rehearse and listen at the same time. Think only about what the other person is saying. And concentrate on what is being said, even if it bores you. If our mind starts to wander, we need to force ourselves to refocus.

Do not interrupt, and do not try to fix or solve problems. 

Children used to be taught that it’s rude to interrupt. I’m not sure that message is getting across anymore. The opposite is being modeled on the majority of talk shows and reality programs, where loud, aggressive, in-your-face behavior is encouraged.

Interrupting sends a variety of messages. It says:

  • “I’m more important than you are.”
  • “What I have to say is more interesting/accurate/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.”

We all think and speak at different rates. If we are a quick thinker and an agile talker, the burden is on us to relax our pace for the slower, more thoughtful communicator.

When listening to someone talk about a problem, refrain from trying to fix or suggesting solutions. Most of us don’t want advice. If we do, we’ll ask for it. Most of us prefer to figure out our own solutions. We simply need someone to listen and help us do that. If we are absolutely bursting with a brilliant solution/idea, at least get the speaker’s permission.  Ask, “Would you like to hear my ideas?”

Ask questions to understand better.

When we notice that our question has led the speaker astray, take responsibility for getting the conversation back on track.  Try saying something like, “It was great to hear about your trip, but tell me more about your brother.”

Try our best to feel what the speaker is feeling.

Empathy is the heart and soul of good listening.  Do the best we can to tune into the speaker’s feelings. If we feel sad when another expresses sadness, joyful when they express joy, fearful when they describe their fears (and we should convey those feelings through our facial expressions and words), our effectiveness is high as a good listener.

To experience empathy, we need to put ourselves in the other person’s place and allow ourselves to feel what it’s like to be in their shoes at that moment. This is not an easy thing to do. It takes energy and concentration. But it’s very generous and helpful to do.  It also facilitates communication like nothing else does.

Give positive feedback.

Give the speaker some proof that we are listening, that we are following their train of thought by reflecting their feelings. “How thrilling!” or “That was a horrible thing for you.” or “I can see how you might have been confused.” If the speaker’s feelings are hidden or unclear, then occasionally paraphrase their message. Or just nod and show understanding with appropriate facial expressions and an occasional well-timed “hmmm” or “uh huh.”

Pay attention to what isn’t said—to nonverbal cues.

We extract much information about each other without saying a word. Even over the phone, we can learn almost as much about a person from the tone and cadence of another’s voice than from anything they say.

Face to face with a person, we can detect enthusiasm, boredom, or irritation quickly in the expression around the eyes, the set of the mouth, the slope of the shoulders. These are clues we cannot ignore. When listening, know that words tell us only a fraction of the message.

Begin today!  What better holiday to begin practicing these new listening skills!


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