Uncommon Advice on Being a Good Listener

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All day long we’re being talked at excessively. Cable news pundits, social media posts, podcasts, TED Talks, that boring lecture at work/school, this blog post. And no one is listening. It’s a firehouse of one-way communication that leaves us filled up with no equal opportunity to empty out.

How nice it would be if we stopped to really listen to one another.

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.
— Stephen Covey

We may believe we do our fair share of listening, but do we really? The time we’re not talking is not necessarily the time we are listening. Oftentimes our listening is cursory because we’re distracted or we’re using the time to formulate our next point. So, in the end, we’re having two separate monologues.

In our present climate of political and cultural acrimony and intense tribalism, there is much to be gained by simply listening. It can be a powerful gesture of openness and receptivity that demonstrates maturity and wisdom. By putting our hardened points of view to the side and listening with the intent to understand, we can bring kindness and consideration back to our interactions.

Even in our personal relationships, active listening strengthens our mutual trust and therefore our bond. It endears us to another because we are taking the time and the discipline to set aside our agenda and let someone else just be heard.

To be a good listener is to leave your partner feeling perfectly understood. If you listen with genuine curiosity and integrity, you are sincerely seeking the meaning and experiences behind their words. This gesture is so rare. It can be an invaluable gift to offer another.

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How to Become a Better Listener

The following are listening best practices that can help you extend such generosities. They can be practiced anywhere and with anyone. Your waitress deserves to be heard just as much as your spouse and kids. By opening yourself up to what others have to say, so much can be learned and experienced. Don’t discount the story someone hasn’t yet told you. By approaching each interaction with genuine receptivity through your listening ear, both parties can be left mutually fulfilled.

1 - Don’t multitask

Give your undivided attention to the person you are speaking with. Don’t answer the phone, don’t respond to the text, don’t Google something, don’t address your kids. Pretend like this person is going to give you the secrets to a successful and happy life. Pay attention like your complete well being depended on it.

2 - Display body language that indicates you’re paying attention

If you are talking in person, have your whole body face them. Sit up, lean in, look them in the eye. (Just don’t be creepy.) Nod and verbally acknowledge when you agree. Grimace when they share something painful. Let your body language and your voice signal your empathy.

3 - Be open and reserve judgements

Even if you are talking with a dear friend you two will never agree on everything. We all walk different paths that create different experiences and different points of view. While you may disagree with your friend, their experience is still valid and perhaps you have something to learn. Imagine if you were a reporter and you were assigned to interview someone you adamantly disagreed with. How could you talk with them but still remain objective and professional? If you sincerely try to understand you may be shown a perspective you hadn’t ever considered.

4 - Don’t over-relate

Showing empathy is an important listening skill. But it needs to be done in moderation. When someone is sharing, it is their story, their experience. Don’t equate their experience with yours. Even if you have some similar situation which you believe would add context, don’t. Let them have their time. Their experience is uniquely their own and by you piling on your story, you may be diminishing theirs.

5 - Don’t autofill their statements

It’s kind of like a communication nervous tic. How often do you try to “help out” someone when they are trying to get a thought out. You rush in with your presumption of the point and offer up words to complete the sentence. This is conversation creep and it can be overbearing and annoying. Give them their space and their time. Let them get their points out with the words they choose however slowly they come.

6 - Don’t be afraid of silence

As mentioned we are so conditioned by constant noise and constant talking that when there is silence, it feels unnerving. But the space in between talking can be a gift when you are showing someone you are listening. It gives them verbal breathing room to let them reflect on their thoughts and not feel rushed. It’s a conversation equivalent of a relaxing sigh.

7 - Don’t feel you need to be their problem solver

We live our lives in hyper problem-solving mode. Likely as an employee you are paid to be one. As a parent, it’s your existence. But when you’re offering to listen to another, remember they may not be looking for your advice. They may just want a sounding board. Instead of making any suggestions that could cloud their thinking, you can ask thought provoking open-ended questions to help them arrive at the heart of the matter. Focus on questions that start with What, How and Why.

8 - Just be curious

Our lives are too short to have every experience. By bringing deep and genuine curiosity to our conversations we can gain multiple lives’ worth of experiences. This is why we read books and watch movies. Every person you speak with has something to share that may teach you, entertain you, or inspire you. If you submit to attentively listen with genuine interest, you’ll be amazed.

Take Action!

Try to use one or two of these suggestions in most conversations you have during a week’s time. See if it’s easy or hard. What did you learn from trying to be a better listener?

What do you experience when you are actively listening to someone else? And vice versa? Please share in the comments below. I’m listening!!