Remember the game of telephone? When someone would repeat a sentence to the person next to them and it would go from person to person down the line, until the last person would repeat the sentence out loud and see how much it changed from the original sentence. I don’t think I ever played that game and had the last person in line even come close to the original sentence. Most of us hear pretty well, but we often could use some help developing our listening skills. Becoming a better listener is a goal we should all have.
Listening is an essential skill. We often focus on developing the ability to speak well, but listening is, in my opinion, even more critical to success in business and in life than is speaking. After all, in the words of the Greek philosopher Epictetus, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
Hearing and listening are not the same thing. We hear many things throughout the course of a day but we listen to only a few. According to Google’s dictionary, hearing is defined as perceiving a sound made by someone or something. Listening is defined as giving one’s attention to a sound, or to take notice of and act on what someone says.
Those are definitely two very different activities. Most of us don’t need a lot of help hearing, unless we have a medical issue, but we can all improve our listening skills.
So, if listening is such an important skill, how do you develop it?
What are the benefits of being a better listener?
Learning to listening more effectively can help you in both your personal and professional life. When you listen well, you reduce the potential for misunderstandings and conflicts. You can solve problems more easily.
At work, it may help advance your career. Being a better listener can improve your creativity, by helping you see new ideas and the potential for innovation. You can complete projects, especially group projects more quickly. You can even use your listening skills to become a better speaker. That’s right—good listening skills can help you speak and present better.
In your personal life, you may enjoy less conflict and richer relationships. You can avoid embarrassing missteps. If you’re a parent, you can use those listening skills to help your children open up to you, and to become good listeners themselves.
How do you become a better listener?
Everyone can improve their listening skills. Here are a few things I have learned along the way that have made a difference for me.
Give the Speaker your Full Attention
To be a better listener, put aside any distractions. That includes your phone, your computer, the TV, something outside your window, whatever you’re working on. Be in the moment with whomever is speaking to you. If you are busy thinking about what you’re going to say or what you’re going to fix for dinner or making a mental grocery list, you aren’t listening. Look at your speaker. Make eye contact, and respond to what they’re saying with a nod or other action of interest.
Pay Attention to both the Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication
Listen not only to the words, but also to the body language. Observing carefully while listening fully can tell you far more than words alone. Mirroring the speaker’s body language subtly conveys to the speaker that you are listening attentively. It also can help the speaker to relax and help you build rapport with them. Body language is an essential component of effective communication.
In addition, adopt an open posture yourself. When you sit with your legs and arms crossed, leaning back in your chair, it tells your speaker you are feeling defensive or skeptical toward them. Leaning in and sitting with your arms open tells your speaker that you are ready to listen to them.
Suspend your Judgment
When you listen without judging you often understand far more than you would otherwise. If you set aside your biases, you may have a very different listening experience. Listen with empathy and try to put yourself in their shoes. We have something to learn from virtually everyone we come in contact with. But if we’re busy judging, we’re not open to learning. Learning to suspend our judgment is one of the key components to be a better listener.
Listen without Interrupting
Allow the speaker to finish what they have to say before you respond. Cutting them off tells them that you are more interested in what you have to say than what they do.
Don’t be in a Rush to Respond
Silence is ok. In fact, it is an essential part of listening. You don’t need to jump right in as soon as someone stops speaking. When you wait until the other person is done speaking and then take a few moments to carefully compose your response, you’ll find you end up with a much more thoughtful and productive conversation. You’ll also find that you have time then to really listen to what they are saying instead of using that time to formulate your response.
If you aren’t 100% sure of the speaker’s position or what they’re saying, politely ask questions to get clarification. If necessary, repeat what you heard back to the speaker in your own words to ensure you understand what they are telling you. This is known as reflection and helps clarify the speaker’s thoughts for both of you. Thoughtful questions can only be formed through thoughtful listening.
Implementing these six tips can help you be a better listener, leading to better relationships and fewer misunderstandings. How are your listening skills? Do you need some help with speaking or listening for better engagement? I’d love to help you with that. Contact me here for more information or a free introductory conversation.
What are some of your best tips for being a better listener? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below.
This post was originally published in 2012, and updated in 2021.