People & Human Resources

Five ways to become a better listener

Eve Ash /

You have my attention.

I’m listening!

I’m all ears.

Few of us like to admit we’re poor listeners. The truth is, in our distracted society, most people are not particularly good at listening, and a vital tenet in human evolution is slipping away, unnoticed, as we become busier and paradoxically less focused. 

Any conversation or meeting is going to be fairly unproductive without good listening and questioning. Listening is what helps us focus, every bit as much as our other senses do, when we choose to use them. And questioning helps us find out more.

So what does listening entail?

It’s not just hearing. It’s not waiting to pounce on something you didn’t particularly agree with or disliked. It means receiving what the other person says, taking in both their stated intent and what they may be unaware they’re communicating. Not everyone articulates their thoughts in a manner to which others are receptive. 

All of us should improve our listening and interviewing capabilities. Here’s five ways to start. 

1. Listen and observe warmly — don’t tune out

We all know what it feels like when you’re talking with someone and they have that vague smile, eyes fixed on you, but no sign of actual cognisance. So don’t inflict the “light’s on but no-one’s home” behaviour on others. Listen and observe warmly, or at least with relevant, constructive responses that demonstrate your engagement with the speaker and their topic. 

2. Ask interesting questions and don’t leap to conclusions

You might think you’ve heard the topic before. You might believe you know exactly what’s coming. You might be right. Then again, you could be dead wrong.

It’s easy enough to leap to conclusions, drum impatient fingers, and reckon you have the situation sussed. But why not pull back on your fidgety reaction, pick up on what’s being said, and start to take an interest? Ask clever questions that show you are interested. Build on what the person has said with a follow-up question. Great questions build enthusiasm.

3. Respond with interest and empathy — don’t stonewall

People have different ways of putting up barriers in conversations. Some people hold up a figurative “talk to the hand” sign to whatever they’re hearing. And that’s their big mistake, because frequently vital information is lost. It’s far better to practise responding with interest and empathy, particularly if you’re going to have any success persuading people or moving anyone towards change.

4. Engage with challenges — don’t just sit there

It’s important to let someone tell their story their way, but make sure you’re not just sitting there like someone being forced to endure an old-style lecture.

The key to effective listening is absorbing the vital bits, thinking them through and discussing what to do about it. Once you’ve asked questions, elicited more information, and ascertained that the other person is in fact seeking action or simply your thoughts, then start to engage with the challenges.

5. Check and conclude positively — don’t make assumptions

Most of us tend to make assumptions about what’s being said, not to mention the person doing the talking. No matter how irritated you might feel with the way they’re relaying their topic, grievance or report, don’t assume you know the anecdote’s destination. 

Equally, try not to prejudge how they self-critique (or not). People need space to react in their own way. It is always easier, when you’re not involved, to assume you would have done things differently. Be aware, though, that once you’ve made assumptions, in effect you’re not really listening for further clues and information that can be subtle and might illuminate what’s really at the root of the matter. Check your assumptions as you do your belongings in a cloakroom — this enables you to conclude positively.

Set about becoming a champion listener, and someone who asks excellent questions that delve, challenge and extend the depth and breadth of a conversation. By working on the above, insights, ideas and improved relationships are the valuable outcomes.

NOW READ: How to retain employees? Now is the time to listen

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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