Is it to get closer to a loved one? Do you want to begin to understand where your boss is coming from? Do you want to make a good impression at work or among a new group of friends?
Whatever the reason, if you follow these 6 simple steps, you will be on your way to being an expert listener that people open up to with confidence.
1. Recognize What Kind of Listener You Are
Self-awareness is essential as you’re developing good listening skills. You have to know where you are before you can truly change your behavior((Scientific American: Now Hear This! Most People Stink at Listening)). Pay attention to the cues other people are giving you as to what kind of listener you are right now. Do any of these ring true?
The Space out
The space out listener can’t maintain focus on the speaker. They get distracted easily and are not concentrating on what the speaker is saying.
This person can’t help themselves and butts in while the speaker is talking to share something similar that happened to them recently or share another anecdote they think is related.
This is the person who listens to solve your problem and give unsolicited advice. While their intentions may be helpful, they miss the nuance that the speaker is perfectly capable of handling the situation; they just might need to talk it through.
Similar to the space out listener, the faker takes it the extra mile by uttering responses like “Mm-hmm,” “Yep,” “Oh, really?” “Wow, interesting.” They are distracted, on their phone, listening to music, or watching YouTube videos and don’t have a clue as to what you’re saying.
We have all been in conversations with bad listeners. Let’s prevent ourselves from doing that with others through thoughtful and intentional practice of active listening((MIT: Key Tips for Active Listening)).
2. Decide to Be a Better Listener
This is a choice you are actively making in order to improve your relationships at work or at home, so commit to practicing some good listening skills. Here are some things active listeners do on a regular basis:
Listen Without Judgment
They listen to learn and to understand what the other person is saying while setting aside assumptions and experiences they have that might be similar.
Communicate Through Non-Verbal Cues
These cues can include eye contact, nodding, smiling, facing the speaker, and putting their phone away and out of sight. These are also known as body language cues and let the speaker know you are connecting with what they are saying.
3. Make a Plan
Before speaking with someone, plan out your actions in your head. Decide what you will and won’t do during the conversation to practice good listening skills. For example:
- I will silence and put away my phone.
- I will adjust my chair so I am facing the person and making eye contact.
- I will listen with curiosity and without judgment.
- I will reflect back what they are saying and ask clarifying questions to help me understand their message.
- I won’t interrupt.
- I won’t get distracted by my phone or other people.
- I won’t listen to solve or fix.
4. Change the Channel
Close your eyes and imagine flipping a switch from on to off. Now, do it again but imagine that Channel 1 is “me-focused” and Channel 2 is “empathy focused.”
When you flip to Channel 2 before a conversation, you automatically prepare by putting away your phone, facing the speaker, suspending judgement, and getting curious about what you are going to learn from this other person.
5. Reflect Back What You Hear
Reflecting back what you hear means summarizing or paraphrasing what they are saying just so they know you hear them. This helps them feel understood and eliminates the possibility of moving forward with incorrect information.
For example, if your boss is describing a project they want done next week, you can reflect the information back with a simple sentence like, “Ok, I understand that you want Project X done by Wednesday at noon, correct?”
6. Listen to Understand, Not to Fix
Listen more than you speak, and be aware of what your brain is doing while the other person is talking. Are you making assumptions? Are you thinking of what advice you can give to make the person feel better and solve his/her situation?
Remind yourself to listen without judgement and to only offer advice if asked. Good listening skills involve listening to the story the way they are telling it and showing, through non-verbal cues and clarifying questions, that you are hearing and understanding them.
7. Prepare, Practice, Reflect
This is a short routine you can do to improve good listening skills.
Step 1: Prepare Yourself
Similar to Pavlov’s dog experiment from the 1900’s((Simply Psychology: Pavlov’s Dogs)), we are going to set up a conditioned response for ourselves every time someone asks “Can I talk with you about something?” Every time someone invites you in to a conversation, you will immediately do these three actions:
- Say yes to the invitation.
- Silence your phone and put it in a drawer, a purse, or in another room.
- Face the speaker and make friendly eye contact.
Now that you are physically set up to listen, let’s discover how you will listen.
Step 2: Practice Active Listening Techniques
Be curious about what you will learn from this person. Suspend judgement and put your advice channel on mute. Listen to understand, not to fix or advise. Reflect back what you hear or ask clarifying questions.
These simple techniques will work wonders for any conversation you enter.
Step 3: Reflect on How You Did as a Listener
Were you truly present in that moment for the other person, or was your mind wandering? Was it challenging to maintain focus on the speaker? If the answer is yes, this is totally normal and expected because you are building a new skill and re-training your brain to execute this new skill on command. With consistent practice and focus on building this skill, it will soon become a habit.
Being a better listener starts with you. You must intentionally prepare your mind for good listening skills because your brain is much too busy with managing your life, worries, and anxieties. When you make the decision to be a better listener, you are tapping into your empathy.
You are actively focusing on the other person and what they need right now. They don’t need to be fixed or told what to do; they need to talk something through, and they picked you as their thought partner. The moment you give the other person your full attention, you are set up for a successful and meaningful conversation.