People & Human Resources

Seven ways to be a better listener

Eve Ash /

When you listen well you build trust and respect. Most people think they are good listeners, yet most people say others are not good listeners.

When managers get feedback on their communication skills it is often about needing to be better listeners. The problem is that good listening is not always a skill offered in business training programs.

Good listening is not simply paraphrasing what someone is saying. It is really paying attention to the other person. A good listener will occasionally be thanked for being a good listener. That feels great. But how many times do people say in anger: “You’re not listening to me!

There are many people who expect conversations to be on their terms and are not interested in dialogue. Intelligence is not always a corollary of good listening. Some leaders and high achievers set the pace for an entire conversation, directing the topics and constantly changing subject when they’ve had enough, leaving those with less to say or who are never given a chance feeling cheated of respectful two-way communication. Sometimes those who have been very successful can fall into the trap of lacking empathy for those still trying to find their way.

Most people, if asked, know what it takes to be a good listener but somehow seem to forget what is best practice because they don’t practise!

1. Look at how they feel

Body language usually says it all. Much more is expressed through one’s face, posture and mannerisms. When someone avoids eye contact think about why and how you can make them feel more at ease.

Notice the tell-tale signs right in front of you — concern in their faces, the glimmer of hope, the sad eyes, the annoyed grimace, the eyes rolling skyward, the continual swallowing. These may be huge alarm bells or big clues as to what is really going on. Don’t fall into the trap of only listening to the words being said. Look at the person and see how they are feeling.

2. Listen to their speech

The tone of voice tells you a lot about someone’s energy and feelings. Listen to the vocal inflections and pace of speaking. Slow and considered is as important as a brisk, articulate clip. Always make allowances for both what and how people are speaking, the better to fully appreciate what’s being communicated. Notice when at times they go very quiet with their words, or struggle to say particular things. The sighs and little exhalations are all telling you something so take it all in.

3. Get rid of distractions

Smartphones are our connection to the world. However, smartphone screens and computer screens are distracting when someone is trying to talk to you, so make a point of turning your full attention to the person needing to be listened to. To continue to use a device is rude and signals that you’ve got other things you’re dealing with. Either give the person your full attention or agree to a time and place where you will do it. Offer to walk away to somewhere quieter. Give them time and your focused attention.

4. Avoid going your way

Don’t fall into the trap of going your way. This is when you are listening, but something the speaker’s touched on diverts your attention, and you chime in with a question or conversational gambit that you think is important, but is in fact not what the speaker’s really on about. You want to show how you’ve experienced something similar, only it’s usually amplified or woefully different. This can make for contentious discussions, even arguments. In those circumstances, few of us feel we’ve been given a decent hearing — far from it. Hold off until the speaker’s finished, discuss what it is s/he is emphasising, and then get around to the question or issue you have.

5. Turn off selective hearing

When you only pay attention to portions of what the speaker is speaking about, you are in the ‘selective hearing’ mode. This may be because they are rambling, going over old ground, being vague or are perhaps unqualified to be speaking about a matter. Give the speaker a chance to finish what they’re saying, and then ask well-judged questions based on both what they’ve said, and what they’re communicating in other ways.  Don’t repeat things back to them exactly the way they said it; paraphrase with care and judiciousness.

If they are rambling excessively, and you need to move on, use a three-step approach:

1. Interrupt and say their name: “Julie, …”

2. Summarise what you’ve heard with empathy. For example: “I can hear the program was almost impossible to manage, with the lack of support and timeframe, which would have been tough

3. Before they go on further, redirect. For example: “Let’s talk about a way forward tomorrow at 10, as I have to get a report finished now”.

6. No unsolicited quick fixes

Don’t provide unsolicited quick-fix answers. It is so much better for people to talk through their issues and come to their own realisations, answers and actions. Listen and help them take responsibility. Unfortunately, many of us with loads of experience can’t help but offer answers and solutions before hearing the whole example, by saying:

“Why don’t you try …”

“I know what will work, but you must …”

“How about going to see …”

“You should …”

We need to help the person to come to the right solutions themselves. If asked for ideas or suggestions, by all means give your experience. But don’t assume the answers you have are right for someone else. Everyone is unqiue.

If you have suggestions, wait for the invite or say:

“I’ve got some ideas and suggestions I’d be happy to share.”

7. Be patient

Are you quick to jump in with assessments? Your impatience may be the source of misunderstandings because you are missing the real gist of what’s being said. Unless you’re a professional broadcaster with a number of interviews to complete before the news at the top of the hour, then what’s your real hurry? 

Good listening is as much in need of being practised on the run, as it is during meetings, interviews and confidential appointments. Most of us make the effort to listen during these contexts, but less so when things are exploding all around us. Either way, strive to sharpen up your senses; otherwise important clues may be missed.

When you become a good listener you build credibility.

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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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