Proactive Listening Techniques

The quality of your listening skill affects many aspects of your life, whether you realize it or not. Studies have shown that attempting to juggle more than one activity at a time is detrimental to overall listening abilities. One study demonstrated that students who sent messages, emailed, texted, or updated their social media status during lectures had more unsatisfactory grades than those who listened without distractions.

How well you listen has a profound impact on the quality of your relationships as well, both on the job and in personal interactions. Small business owners and salespeople can use their listening skills to improve their service or product, better meeting the needs of customers and potential clients.

Employees who listen are more apt to complete tasks correctly the first time, leading to praise or promotions. Listening will also help you understand workplace problems better and collaborate with your team members to develop solutions.

In personal relationships, listening to your partner will reduce friction, enhance communication, and boost the depth of your connection. When you are proactive about listening, you are opening the way to earning the other person’s trust. Active listening also provides a way for you to understand their situations truly. By listening in such a way, you demonstrate that you wish to comprehend their words while offering empathy and support.

Unfortunately, most of us only remember less than a quarter of what we hear. Therefore, we must learn proactive listening techniques to improve our retention of things we hear. Listening is a capability that can be practiced and refined over time. Here are some proactive listening techniques that help you become a better communicator.

Reduce Distractions

Students report that personal and internal distractions like hunger, headache, or worry about another situation were one of the top three barriers to attentive listening. Among business people, environmental distractions like ringing phones and side conversations were the number one cause for inattention. The second distractor was the same as that reported by students, personal and internal distractions.

Determining which distraction is keeping us from listening well is an essential aspect of eliminating it. If there is quite a bit of background noise, it’s ok to ask the person to repeat what he or she said. Then if you rehearse what you hear mentally immediately after it is spoken, you’ll be able to process the information better in your long-term versus short-term memory, reducing the effect of the noise distraction.

Looking directly at the speaker will also help reduce peripheral distractions. By keeping your focus on the person who you are listening to, your attention is fixed, not wandering. You will also be more aware of the speaker’s body language, which in turn will aid you in understanding the underlying meaning of the conversation, not just the words that were spoken.

Don’t prepare your rebuttal while the other person is speaking. Doing so provides an internal distraction that interferes with your listening ability. There will be enough time for that after he or she has made their point. Instead, listen attentively, and when the person asks for your opinion, take a few seconds to formulate your thoughts before responding.

If you are not feeling well or are hungry or thirsty, you won’t be in top listening form. Take care of those physical needs by getting a drink or having a snack before an important business meeting. Make sure you had enough rest the night before an important interview. If you are too sick to pay any attention to what is being said, then excuse yourself. Make arrangements to have the conversation at a later time when you are feeling better.

Take Notes

If you are in a meeting or classroom setting, taking notes by hand will also help you process and remember the information better. Be intentional about note-taking. Listen for key points, interesting sidenotes, and clarification.

After the meeting, go back over the notes and fill in anything you might have missed. If there are points that are still not clear, send an email to a coworker or the professor and ask to ensure you heard everything correctly.

Interact with the Speaker

When participating in a conversation, actually participate. Nod your head to ideas expressed that you agree with. Provide verbal cues that you are listening to, such as ‘yeah’ or ‘uh-huh.’ Posture your arms and body in an open, receptive position, not turned away or with arms crossed, which indicates your mind is closed against the speaker’s comments.

Lean towards the speaker to show your receptiveness to what is being said. If the moment presents itself, touch the person’s shoulder or hand in acknowledgment of hearing what the person is saying. Some people are uncomfortable with physical contact, so if they back away, find another way to connect.

Smile. People smile more at people they are interested in. Smiling reassures the speaker that you are indeed interested in what he or she is saying. Smiling promotes emotional bonding, as long as it a genuine smile. People listen more to those they have a connection with.

Rephrase and repeat what you hear verbally to ensure you understand what is said. Use phrases like ‘What I’m hearing is…’ and ‘It sounds like you are saying…’ as you ask for clarification. Ask genuine follow-up questions.

Repeating and rephrasing are especially useful proactive listening techniques if you find yourself responding emotionally to something. You may have misunderstood or misheard something which led to your emotional response. And we all know that when emotions are involved, our listening skills fly right out the window.

When responding, be respectful rather than aggressive. No one likes to be yelled at. Open communication is relaxed and courteous even when the participants disagree.

Interacting with the speaker in this way will improve your memory of what you heard. While you may not remember the exact wording, you will recall the gist of the conversation.

Make Eye Contact

As you converse with a person, you should make regular eye contact. That doesn’t mean staring a person down or trying to intimidate them with your gaze. Instead, aim for about 60 to 70% eye contact with occasional periods looking away. People who make eye contact are perceived as being more friendly and welcoming than those who don’t.

Hold the speaker’s gaze for about five seconds, then look away. Don’t look down as you look away. Instead, look to the side or break the contact with a gesture or a nod of the head.

Some people suffer from certain types of social anxiety that makes eye contact difficult for them. Perhaps you are shy and feel uncomfortable making eye contact. If you have been diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder (SAD), then you may have a profound fear of eye contact.

Additionally, those that have autism process facial expressions differently, and direct eye contact may overstimulate their brains. Thus, avoiding eye contact helps the person with autism by reducing visual stimulation.

Eye contact can be improved over time by small increments. Begin by practicing the amount of time you make contact in a conversation with a person you feel comfortable with. Focus on a point on the other person’s forehead, somewhere between their eyes. Let your eyes go out of focus if the intensity of making eye contact starts to bother you.

Gradually work your way up to maintaining eye contact with acquaintances and then people who make you feel uncomfortable, such as a work supervisor.

If you feel overwhelmed making eye contact with even close friends, start by practicing with TV characters or videos. Then try using a video chat session with a close friend. Perhaps not being in the physical presence of someone will reduce your anxiety.

Look for the Emotion Behind the Words

Pay attention to the speaker’s body language to try and ascertain what he or she is trying to say. Note his or her word choices, speaking speed, and volume, as well as the tone of voice being used. Attempt to determine the emotion behind the words by observing the sentiments the speaker is projecting. Is he excited, angry, confused? Is she irritated, afraid, or melancholy?

Be Self-Aware

If something said triggers an emotional response from you, you must be aware of that and not respond in kind. Being self-aware in communication settings can be tricky. It requires you to look critically at who is speaking, the response the conversation elicits, and determine why you are reacting that way. Additionally, you’ll need to have enough self-control to temper your own words so that the discussion does not become a shouting match.

Being self-aware also implies that reserve judgment both on the speaker and their commentary. Judgment clouds your ability to fully understand what is being said because it provokes an emotional response. By listening proactively, you let the other person know you value their thoughts and can have a level of mature communication with them.

Be aware of your confidence level and how that affects your listening abilities. Interestingly, listeners who are confident individuals can decipher the content of what they have heard better than listeners who are lacking in confidence. However, listeners with lower levels of confidence hear emotional messages better than highly confident listeners.

Your listening ability can be improved if you determine which of the four primary listening styles you use most often. About 40% of the population listen using two or more distinctive methods, depending on the situation and the gender of the listener.

Females are more often people-oriented listeners. They demonstrate a strong concern for others and their feelings. They make an effort to understand through the use of stories with a focus on emotions. This type of communication can be seen as intrusive if they are not communicating with someone who is not relationship-oriented. People-oriented listeners have a lower apprehension level for receiving new information than the other types of listeners.

Men are more often time, content, or action-oriented listeners. Time oriented listeners are very time conscious. They may try to hurry speakers by making comments about time constraints. They prefer shorter answers and may tune out if the speaker continues speaking after giving a  concise response.

Content oriented listeners focus on what is said rather than who is saying it or the emotions behind it. They focus on understanding the facts in the conversation, which sometimes leads them to ignore the ideas and feelings of the speaker.

Action-oriented listeners focus on what actions will be done, when those actions will be done, and who will do those actions. They prefer clear descriptions rather than vague emotional statements. They may be impatient and try to hurry speakers to finish.

Use Silence and Pauses

Don’t be afraid of a few minutes of silence during a conversation. Use those moments to your advantage. Take time to process what you heard, repeating it to yourself. Think about how to respond, but don’t feel rushed to speak.

Pauses may encourage the other speaker to provide just a little more information about his or her point. Wait for them. Use the break to consider your replies. Respond without judgment. On the other hand, frequent pauses or hesitations might be interpreted as dishonest communication. Try to find the right balance between responses and breaks as you speak and listen.

Use Metacognitive Listening Strategies

In certain situations, like a classroom lecture, you can use metacognitive listening strategies to aid in your listening and comprehension. To get the most out of the lesson, you should prepare beforehand. Review any information you have on hand, do some research about the topic to activate your prior knowledge.

During the lecture, use both directed and selective attention as you listen. Focus on the main points while paying less attention to secondary examples if you already understand the concept. Take notes in the same manner with an emphasis on main points.

After the lesson, review the notes you took, paying attention to points you may have missed. Use self-management to determine what aspects of listening you need improvement on. For example, did you stop listening when your phone rang and lose several vital points? Manage it so that next time, your phone will not be a distraction to proactive listening.

Phone Communication

Listening to what someone is saying on the phone can be extremely difficult. You won’t have facial expressions, gestures, or body language clues to help you understand the meaning of what is being said while talking on the phone. Neither do you have eye contact or the physical presence of a person to keep you from becoming distracted?

To improve your listening ability, move to a relatively quiet area, and distraction-free to continue the conversation. Don’t be afraid to ask the caller to wait a moment while you find a new location explaining that you wish to give him or her your undivided attention and your current site doesn’t allow for that.

If you are unable to hear the person well because of the volume or call quality, ask the caller to repeat him or herself, rephrasing what you heard to confirm your comprehension, and avoid misunderstandings down the line. When the call quality is not good enough for any sort of meaningful communication, ask if you can return the call later when you can better attend to the information the caller wishes to convey.

Physical Barriers to Listening

Be aware that some types of physical stimulation may interfere with your ability to listen well. If you are hungry or thirsty, your mind will be on those physical needs rather than focusing on the discussion. Being hungover or having to use the bathroom are also detractors to listening. If you find yourself in one of these conditions, excuse yourself and take care of the presenting problem. Then you’ll be able to devote your full attention to the conversation.

Background noise can also be a factor in how well you are listening even if it is not loud enough to drown out speech. If you find yourself paying more attention to the noise than the speaker, make a concerted effort to concentrate more or take the conversation to a quieter location.

Watch Others for Signs of Proactive Listening

As you work to improve your listening skills, you should begin to pay attention to how others express the idea that they are listening attentively. Watch interviews on television while observing how the interviewer encourages the interviewee to continue. Spend time watching people in a public area. Even if you can’t hear what is being said, notice how those involved in the conversation interact with each other.

Things to Avoid When Listening Proactively

There are some actions that you should avoid when listening proactively to show respect for the speaker. Don’t daydream about other things when someone is talking to you. You shouldn’t just pretend to pay attention to the conversation, actually do so. Sometimes the person may say something you don’t want to hear. Don’t ignore the comment or discussion because it is an emotional trigger for you.

Don’t interrupt or show your disdain through facial gestures or body language. Displaying impatience by making ‘hurry-up’ gestures or finishing a person’s sentence for them should also be avoided. If your phone rings during the conversation, don’t answer it. Or, if you must, apologize and quickly take care of the caller to return your attention to the conversation you were having before the phone rang.

Try not just to hear what is being said without making an effort to understand the meaning behind the words. Don’t avoid eye contact, even if the subject of the conversation makes you uncomfortable.

While it’s important to ask clarifying questions, don’t spend excessive time asking about irrelevant details. Furthermore, don’t try to top the other person’s stories with those of your own. The idea is for you to listen attentively to the person who is speaking, while not discrediting their thoughts with your own experience.

Make an effort not to forget what has already been discussed during the conversation. If you’ve forgotten what the person said just a few minutes ago, it shows them that what they have to say isn’t relevant to you because you weren’t listening. If you have forgotten something, ask in a rephrasing manner such as ‘Now, did you say that …? I’ve forgotten what you said. Please tell me again.’

Don’t jump in with advice or a quick fix for the issue the person is talking about. Even if you have a great idea that you are sure will solve the problem, keep silent about it. Instead, ask questions to see if the person actually wants your advice or just needs someone to listen to them. Perhaps your line of questioning will help the person find his or her own solution.

Don’t change the subject abruptly. The speaker may feel that you are disregarding what he or she has been saying. Instead, wait for the person to finish what they have to say about a particular subject before bringing up something else.

When responding, don’t use phrases such as ‘I think’ or ‘I feel.’ Also, do not use the phrase ‘I know how you feel’ since there is no way you can, and it invalidates the speaker’s experience. These types of sentences indicate you are reacting rather than actively listening. As an alternative, rephrase what the speaker has said using comments like ‘What I heard was…’ or ‘It seems you are saying…’

What to do When Someone is Not Listening to You

Since you’ve been working on improving your proactive listening techniques, odds are you will quickly notice when someone is not listening to you. Their eyes may become glazed, or they keep glancing away. There could be many reasons why this is happening, and you should not take it as a personal insult.

Studies have shown that the average listener needs a shift in the conversation after about 15 minutes. However, some people may not have as long an attention span and need a change in less time. Notice how long you have been yammering on. Adapt accordingly by redirecting the conversation with a question to the listener.

Perhaps the listener is distracted by their thoughts. Give them time to focus back on the conversation if that is the case. Maybe the listener is not interested in the topic you are discussing. Instead of walking away from the discussion, try to find something you both enjoy talking about, some common ground. Remember, a conversation is one of the best ways to get to know someone, so don’t be afraid to branch out.

If the topic is emotionally charged, the person you are speaking with my zone out. Rather than becoming offended, move the conversation towards small talk. Books, movies, sports, current events, hobbies, family, travel, or work are subject matters that most everyone enjoys talking about. Steer clear of introducing politics, finances, religion, sex, death, personal appearance, age, and past relationships into the conversation.

Monitor your speaking speed. There is a discrepancy between the words we can formulate and the words we hear. The average speaker says between 125 to 175 words per minute. The average listener can understand up to 450 words per minute. If the person you are talking to is having trouble listening, try speaking more rapidly.

Model the proactive listening techniques that you have learned. People tend to mimic others, and your open body language and paraphrasing will encourage the non-responsive listener to behavior in a similar manner.

If you’ve tried and still find that you are not being heard, then politely end the conversation. You won’t be able to get any sort of validation from someone who is not listening to you. Instead, find another person who genuinely wants to hear what you have to say.

Listening Across Cultures and Language

How well you communicate in a language other than your native tongue is dependent on several factors, including attentive listening. Your ability to speak a foreign language improves if you have learned to listen and understand before trying to formulate your sentences.

People from different cultures may listen and respond differently. It’s essential to keep these differences in mind when communicating with someone from a culture different from your own. Nordic countries like Germany and Sweden focus on listening to what is said while most of Asia and many Arabic countries pay more attention to how it is said, the emotional nuance of the words.

Those from Northern Europe and the US are uncomfortable with silence in conversations. The Greek, Spanish, and Italians have many short pauses. In contrast, people from Nordic countries and Japan are comfortable with long periods of silence while conversing.

In Conclusion

Communication is a two-way street. Not only must you learn how to speak well, but you need to listen attentively. Using the proactive listening techniques discussed in this article will help you improve your listening skills.

Improved listening skills lead to better quality relationships at work and home. Active listening will also enhance your learning and communication across cultural and language barriers.

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