Of all the people you know, who is the best listener? Imagine yourself in a conversation with them right now: How do you feel when you talk to them? Your answer, which is likely along the lines of, "I feel valued," or "Talking to them helps me think more deeply," reveals why listening is such a crucial skill. Being a better listener is a great way to deepen your relationships at home, at work and beyond.
Here are some ways you can practice your listening skills.
Tips for becoming a better listener
- Recommit to listening to those you know best
In her 2020 book, "You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters," author Kate Murphy explains the closeness-communication bias. Basically, when you know someone really well, you tend to stop listening as closely to them because you think you know what they are going to say. The problem is that people are always evolving. As we take in new information, we reconsider, make micro shifts, and sometimes flat out change our minds. But if you're not listening to those closest to you because you think you already know what they're going to say, you wind up missing a lot. It can cause the relationship to fracture. Simply being aware of the closeness-communication bias can help you listen in a new way to the people in your life who are most important to you.
- Avoid the temptation of the “serial monologue"
If you're using every open breath in the conversation to share the answer you've been formulating in your head while others are talking, there is a good chance you're not listening in any meaningful way. As question number four asks on the 10 questions to check whether you're listening from the International Listening Association: “Have you rejected the temptation to prepare your response while the other person is speaking?" The less "answer preparing" you can do during conversations, the better.
- Listen to learn
Here's a great tactic for ensuring that you are present and actively listening: make the conversation about the other person. An easy way to do this is to channel curiosity. A New York Times guide to being a better listener suggests pretending that you're hosting a podcast, and it's your job to interview the person. Ask open-ended questions that invite discussion, and truly be present when the person is answering.
- Think before you talk
The New York Times guide also suggests that you continually question your own motivation for why you are talking. Ask yourself, "Why am I talking?" or WAIT, for short. This one simple question can help you become more self-aware, so that you are not just talking to talk.
- Practice the paraphrase
Therapists frequently use this technique. When it's your turn to speak, paraphrase what you heard the other person say before you give your answer or offer your thoughts.
- Banish multitasking
You're on a Zoom call and you're just going to sneak a peek at your email — no one will know, right? Wrong. People intuitively feel when your attention has waned because you're doing something else. It's especially tempting when technology makes it so easy to insert itself into conversations. Put the phone away, silence alerts and focus. You will actually hear very little until you do.
- Keep an open mind
If you bring a lot of preconceived ideas and judgments into a conversation, you will likely only hear the parts of what they say that align with the assumptions you already had. This is called confirmation bias. The best way to check against it is to clear your mind and imagine the conversation as a blank slate. Nothing written, nothing decided yet.
- Fight the urge to always offer critiques
This one is especially helpful for anyone who manages other people. According to research from the Harvard Business Review (HBR), a boss' feedback often makes employees feel defensive and anxious — feelings which make seeing another perspective difficult. In other words, if you tell someone they need to change, they often shut down. By contrast, when bosses take time to truly listen and ask questions, employees are less defensive, more self-aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and more likely to cooperate with colleagues. The HBR authors reiterate the importance of focusing (putting down your phone), but also suggest that you avoid interrupting, ask a lot of good questions and then take time to reflect after the conversation on what you learned.
Want to learn more about how you can improve your communication skills? Check out this article about how emotional intelligence can help you at work.