You Think You're a Good Listener, but You Could Be Better—Here's How to Sharpen Your Listening Skills
You'll be all ears.
You may believe you listen to other people when they're talking—but do you really? Are you engaged in the conversation, or are you multitasking as you scroll through Instagram? Do you allow yourself to digest what they're saying, or are you mentally preparing your response? Being a good listener is a skill that requires practice.
Whether you're having a chat with a colleague, spouse, family member, or friends, communication is the cornerstone of a healthy, thriving relationship, says Mark Williams, the president and CEO of Brokers International, keynote speaker, and author of Lead, Don't Manage. Communicating is more than just telling another person what you think or want, he adds. When we dedicate time to learning how to listen, we strengthen all dynamics in our life.
"Effective communication is a two-way street in which you listen as much as you talk," says Williams. "When others know that you're truly listening to them, they're likely to repay you with the respect you give them, and they'll take the things you say more seriously as well."
Want to be a better listener? Start by working on these expert-approved tips.
Ask open-ended questions.
If you’ve ever tried to chat with someone who gave you one-word answers, you understand the frustration of not being able to keep a conversation going. Part of learning how to listen is using what you hear to then explore new ways of asking the same questions. When trying to navigate a problem—from a missed work deadline to a sink full of dirty dishes—probing a bit can help someone feel heard. It can encourage them to express how they truly feel in a safe environment, says Nikki Salentri, the vice president of human resources at Gympass. Best of all: It can be as easy as changing one word. “By asking questions that begin with ‘how’ and ‘what’, you end up creating more room in the conversation to allow them to not only speak, but help them think more deeply about the topic at hand,” she adds. “It can only help you to create a more open conversation while also being more intentional with how you engage.”
Focus on compassion.
When we seek to listen, we’re making a conscious effort to be empathetic toward another person. Maybe it’s understanding why your partner feels neglected at work and is taking it out on you. Perhaps it’s a pal who’s felt left out of your friend circle ever since she had a second baby. Whatever the case, it’s essential to consider every conversation to be an act of compassion, says Scott Shute, the head of mindfulness and compassion at LinkedIn and author of The Full Body Yes. “When we put our genius listening skills to use, we’ll light up the people around us. Our relationships will improve. We’ll have better results at work. And we’ll build connection and understanding in a disconnected world,” he continues. “It starts with our own mindset about listening. We can change our world from the inside out.”
Make time for 1:1 conversations—at home and at work.
While some people thrive in group situations, others turn into wallflowers who pull away. As a manager at work or the ringleader of your household, scheduling 1:1 time with each colleague or family member will improve your listening abilities, Salentri says. This dedicated ‘meeting’ is a time where you can understand how each individual communicates.
“Some people will only tell you when something is wrong if you ask, while others will want to come to you proactively. By understanding each person’s style it will allow you to know the right way to listen to them,” she says. “This is a great way to start a dialogue and create the space for them to feel comfortable to express themselves and for you to ask those leading questions that will engage them a bit more.”
Give your undivided attention.
When someone is talking to you, Williams says it’s time to clear the decks. What does this mean? You’re only listening to them, either looking at them or zeroing in on their voice while chatting on the phone. Maybe you need to step away from your computer, put down your phone or turn off the TV. “If you’re at work, step into a quiet room or office if there’s too much going on around you. If you’re talking with your spouse and the kids keep interrupting you, go into another room and close the door,” he recommends. In short, you need to be fully present at the moment so you can digest what they’re saying.
Refuse the temptation to chime in.
There’s a difference between zingy, feels-just-right banter and talking over another person. While, in theory, finishing one another’s sentences seems romantic or like a great alignment between business partners, it can come across as having poor listening skills. That’s why psychologist Yvonne Thomas, PhD, says it’s best to keep your lips sealed until the other person has finished their thought. And yes, that means even if you have a big idea, a rebuttal, or something to add. It may feel natural to chime in, but you may actually change your tune or opinion if you actively listen. If you must, Thomas says to jot down your thought. “By doing this, it can calm and reassure you that you won’t forget your thoughts and feelings, and you may feel less stressed or pressured to interrupt.”
Observe their body language.
As Salentri reminds, listening is just as much about what someone says as it is about their actions. That’s why, in order to understand and take in what someone is saying entirely, you should observe them, too. This includes their gestures, their facial impressions, how their body is facing, and so on. While it may be more challenging to do this in a virtual situation, if someone seems nervous or uncomfortable, look for slumped shoulders or a jittery hand. You can wait for them to finish in these instances and then ask them how they’re feeling. This will help them feel more at ease and, hopefully, safe to express themselves.
Forget about your own face.
Believe it or not, worrying about what your face is doing when someone is looking you in the eye can distract you from listening. A lot of people think they have to force a nod, raise their eyebrows, and say "uh-huh" to show that they're paying attention. But when you're truly invested in an experience, the appropriate facial expression will usually occur naturally. So just relax and make eye contact, letting any interjections and reactions come through organically.
Repeat what they say back to them.
Thomas says another way to improve your listening skills is to practice a technique called “reflection.” This is when you repeat back what someone said to you once they’ve finished speaking. It doesn’t need to be verbatim, but it should be an accurate paraphrase of what they shared. “This method immediately helps clarify what may have been misunderstood or misinterpreted,” she explains.
Reflection can illuminate whether you missed anything important the other person said, allowing them to provide more detail or emphasis. “With reflection, each person in the listening role continues to paraphrase back what it seems the speaker is saying after the speaker has clarified or restated one’s points until the listener has demonstrated a good understanding and recall of these,” she explains.
Literally practice listening.
Listening involves several cognitive skills you can actually strengthen, like focus and attention, memory retention, and information processing. While you're in the car or loading the dishwasher, put on a podcast or turn on the news and listen for 10 minutes. Then turn it off and talk (out loud, to yourself—yes, really) about what you learned, adding your own comments or interpretation. You're not attempting verbatim recall, but rather a review of the big picture and some details. This trains your brain to focus while listening, not only training you to hear the words, but also to process their meaning.