People are social creatures. Every day, we have multiple conversations with co-workers, friends, family members, and even strangers. Unless you’re a hermit or a monk who has taken a vow of silence, communication with others is a necessary part of daily life. Considering how often we engage in conversation, we should all be experts in effective listening, right?
Wrong, research has shown that most of us only listen with 25% efficiency! In other words, if we were all graded on our ability to listen effectively, most of us would flunk. However, the good news is that effective listening is something that can be learned at any age if you follow a few simple strategies.
What is Effective Listening?
Before delving into specific strategies for effective listening, we need first to understand what effective listening is and what it isn’t. Simply put, effective listening is listening and reacting to the information given by the speaker without making personal judgments. Effective listening is sometimes called active listening.
It’s important to understand that hearing the words a person is saying isn’t the same as genuinely listening to them. Language is a highly complex system, and people’s minds are even more complicated. The same thing said in a different tone, or a different context can have multiple meanings.
Effective listening seeks to understand more than words. It involves understanding the emotion a person is feeling and the mental process the person is using to make their decisions and form opinions.
Effective Listening Is
- Absorbing not just hearing what the speaker is saying
- Showing genuine interest in the conversation
- Providing the speaker with feedback
- Eliminating or Minimizing distractions
- Understanding different points of view
Effective Listening Isn’t
- Changing the subject
- Giving advice
- Dividing your attention
- Arguing your point of view
- Making judgments about the speaker
How Do You Become an Effective Listener?
To become an effective listener, you need to make a conscious effort to attend to a conversation. You also need to be willing and able to put aside personal bias and listen to the point of view you may not agree with yourself. It requires self-discipline not to interrupt, and wait to speak until the other speaker has made their point.
Active listeners pay attention to more than the speaker’s words. To fully understand the information they are receiving, they also pay attention to the speaker’s tone and body language. Many times, a speaker’s nonverbal communication helps reinforce what they are saying.
The most effective listeners seek clarity. They don’t fill in gaps in the information they receive with their own opinions and ideas — people who listen well know how to engage a speaker to learn more details.
What Are Some Strategies for Effective Listening?
If you would like to improve your listening skills, there are several strategies you can use. Some of these strategies may seem like common sense, while others are a bit more complex. It’s also important to keep in mind that it takes time to become an effective listener, but the more you practice, the easier it will be.
1. Know your own listening needs
If you want to be an active listener, you need to be self-aware. Some people can block out background noise and disruptions without a lot of effort; others cannot. If you are somewhere that has a lot of background noise and you are having trouble focusing on what a speaker is saying, don’t be embarrassed to suggest you move to a quieter area so you can hear better.
By moving to a quieter area, you will be able to focus on the conversation more easily. You will also be communicating with the other person that you value what they are saying and don’t want to miss anything. The same idea can be applied to business and academic settings, as well.
If you are in a meeting or a classroom, find a seat closer to the speaker to help you focus more so you won’t miss important information. If you’re a student, try to pick smaller classrooms over lecture halls and class times that have lower enrollment, like early in the morning or later in the evening.
In addition to your ability to tolerate background noise, consider what time of day you focus best. If you’re more of a morning person, make sure any crucial conversations take place when you are fresh in the morning. However, if you take a little while to get started during the day, pay attention to when you feel you’re at your best and try to plan to have important conversations at that time.
Your mood also influences your ability to listen effectively. Studies have shown that when you are in a good mood, for example, you have an easier time approaching and interacting with others. If you’re in a lousy mood, many times, you want to stay away from others.
While you might not have control in every situation, try to have conversations when you are in a good mood. Not only will the quality of the interaction be better, but you’ll absorb more information and be more receptive to other people’s points of view.
If you are not in a good mood and a conversation is unavoidable, acknowledge your feelings to yourself and then do your best to put them aside and don’t allow yourself to think about them until after you have finished your conversation with the other person.
2. Don’t be tempted by distractions
In today’s world, we have instant access to a wealth of information, but this constant state of connectivity also means we have many things competing for our attention at the same time.
When you are having a face-to-face conversation with someone, it’s imperative to resist the urge to check your phone, computer, or TV screen. If you’re checking your social media or streaming videos, your attention is not entirely on the person who is speaking. You can miss information they are saying or miss non-verbal cues that would help you comprehend their words.
If you feel tempted to check your tweets, pictures, Facebook notifications, etc. stop and remind yourself that all those things will still be there later. You can’t relive the conversation you’re having in the present.
If you need to talk to your spouse or partner, wait to do it until after your children are asleep, and you are done with chores. You should never try to have a meaningful conversation with someone while you’re doing something else. Whether you’re folding laundry or making copies at the office, active listening can’t take place when you are double-tasking.
3. Be Aware of Body Language
A person’s facial expression, posture, physical proximity, and gestures all can support the words they are speaking, or even give you insights into what they might not express verbally. It may seem strange, but effective listening involves seeing as well as hearing what a person is saying.
Smiling, frowning, raising eyebrows, nodding or shaking of the person’s head are all powerful indicators of a person’s feelings about the topic. Active listeners pay attention to these non-verbal cues, along with the words the person is saying.
It’s also important to be aware of your own body language. Maintaining eye contact, keeping your posture open and relaxed rather than closed and tense, communicate to the speaker you are open and approachable. Nodding occasionally during a conversation also helps signal that you are listening and interested in what they are saying.
When you’re listening to someone, you should also be aware of your facial expressions. Even if you’re tired, try to avoid yawning, and even if you disagree with something they are saying, try not to show disapproval or anger.
Once they have fully presented their point, then you’ll have time to give your view. Neutral expression and tone will help lessen the chance of either person going on the defensive and keep the communication from breaking down.
4. Remember Conversations Are Exchanges of Ideas
A key factor in active listening is reminding yourself what the point of any conversation is. A discussion is not a debate; it’s an exchange of ideas. Whether you agree with the other person or share their same interests and background, you need to keep an open mind and not make it all about you.
Effective listeners allow the speaker to express their ideas fully before asking questions or presenting counter-points. Keep your questions in mind and wait for a natural break in the conversation before asking them.
Sometimes while you are waiting, the speaker provides more information that answers the question, but even if they don’t, refraining from interrupting keeps the conversation flowing and helps both parties avoid confusion and loss of focus.
Likewise, it’s easier to listen to another person’s thoughts and opinions when you are not preoccupied with your own. Active listeners are empathetic listeners as well. Instead of focusing on whether you feel or believe a certain thing, you need to try to understand what the other person feels or believes and why, based on what they are saying.
5. Ask for Clarification
If you don’t understand what a person is saying, speak up rather than trying to create meaning based on what you think the person is saying. While this can sometimes feel awkward, it’s vital to do. Many times people feel like they should automatically understand what someone is saying and feel as if it’s a negative reflection on them if they don’t. However, this could not be further from the truth.
A well-thought-out question shows intelligence, interest, and respect for the other person’s ideas. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can still miss information. By asking for clarification, you can get a second chance at absorbing the information you missed. Asking for clarification can also help ideas stick, so you remember them later.
However, when you ask for clarification, make sure that understanding is your actual intent rather than a way of trying to prove you’re right, and they’re wrong. It is vital to frame clarifying questions in a nonjudgmental way. You should never be trying to trap the other person or impose your views on them.
6. Rephrase what the person is saying
Besides asking for clarification directly, rephrasing also helps promote active listening. When you are trying to listen carefully to what someone is saying, it sometimes helps to reiterate it in your own words.
Rephrasing accomplishes two things. First, it reinforces that you are listening to the speaker. Second, it helps you check your understanding. The process of taking information in, analyzing it, putting it in words that make sense to you personally, and saying it back reinforces the information to help it stick.
It also signals the speaker that their message was received or that further clarification is needed. Rephrasing reduces the risk of something getting misinterpreted. Simple misunderstandings can cost time and money as well as cultivate resentment between people. Making sure everyone is on the same page from the start will save a lot of time and extra effort to correct things later.
7. Take notes if appropriate
While note-taking won’t lend itself well to casual social interactions in a business or academic setting, it is entirely appropriate. In your notes, put stars or highlight ideas that seem unclear or that you have questions about. When the speaker pauses, go back to the notes you marked and ask your questions.
By making notes about the conversation and going back to them later, you can get the explanations you need without disrupting the flow of the conversation. Making quick notes also makes it easier to remember what questions you have without having to keep them in your head while trying to pay attention to the rest of the conversation.
Even if note-taking isn’t practical in the context of the conversation you are having, it can still be helpful to try to make mental notes in your head about what the person is saying. We will go into more detail about this later on.
8. Don’t Give Advice
Many times when someone is talking to you about a problem your automatic response is to offer advice. As well-meaning as the advice may be, giving unwanted advice can damage your relationship with the person you’re speaking to.
Most people value their problem-solving ability. When you give unwanted advice, it can be insulting to that person. It can also provide the wrong impression and make you appear arrogant and send the message that you think you are better and more capable than the other person.
A lot of times, people will talk about their challenges with someone else, not because they are looking for advice but validation for their feelings. Some people just need to talk through a problem to help them come up with a solution by giving them advice you are disrupting their thought process.
The minute unsolicited advice is offered the person giving it takes full control of the conversation and is no longer listening to what the other person is saying. The goal of effective listening is to understand what is to understand the speaker. It is not to come up with a solution to a problem.
If someone needs advice chances are they will ask for it directly. Even the best listeners can’t get into another person’s head, and it’s not a good idea to try.
However, if your urge to give advice is very strong, wait for the person to pause and then ask them if it’s okay with them if you share your insights into their problems. If they say it’s alright, then go ahead and offer them your wisdom. If the other person tells you they would prefer to figure it out for themselves than you need to respect their wishes.
9. Give Feedback
Although you want to avoid giving advice or making judgments, you do need to provide feedback to the speaker. If you don’t offer some kind of feedback, a conversation can become a monologue, and the person who is speaking may feel like you’re not interested in what they are saying.
The best listeners are those who are actively engaged in the discussion. To be actively engaged in a subject, you need to reflect on what the other person is saying. When you give occasional verbal feedback, it assures that you continue to stay focused on the speaker and keeps your mind from wandering.
Pay close attention so you can pick up on what the other person is feeling and comment on it. Using phrases like “I can see how stressed you are” or “You must be pleased about that” helps make the other person feel validated and understood.
If something they say sticks out to you, let them know that as well, using phrases like “I like what you said about…” or “I never considered that” are also great examples of feedback to can give another person.
Along with reflecting what the person is feeling, make sure you give occasional verbal affirmations such as “I see what you’re saying,” “I understand,” or even a simple “mm-hmm.” These sorts of verbal cues help the speaker know that you are still paying attention and help them feel more connected to you. It also assists you in making sure you are focusing on the conversation.
Whatever type of feedback you give the speaker, make sure it’s sincere and doesn’t sound patronizing. You always want to be respectful of the other person even if you don’t agree with their viewpoint or aren’t particularly interested in the subject matter. You should listen to others with the same respect you want them to listen to you.
10. Visualize what the person is saying in your mind
Active listening is about paying attention not just to the words spoken but the meaning of those words. If the speaker is telling a story or explaining a situation, try to picture it in your head. By visualizing it in your mind, it will help make the words seem less abstract and help your brain focus on what the speaker is saying.
When listening to a discussion, try to make a mental outline of keywords and points, the person is trying to emphasize. When it’s your turn to speak, you can use your mental framework as a way of focusing further discussions on a topic. Mental notes that you make can serve as cues about what concepts have been touched upon and help you frame your response accordingly.
Visualizing what the person is saying also helps cement the ideas that were discussed in your memory for easier recall later. Your brain builds connections and makes sense of concepts by building on prior knowledge and expanding on it. These connections are what will help you access the information at a later time, and help grow your relationship with the speaker.
What Difference Does Effective Listening Make?
Effective listening increases the quality of your work by assuring a task or goal is fully understood. Active listening allows you to make sure you are on the same page with your boss, co-workers, and even your spouse. When the other person lays everything out for you, then the chances of misinterpretation is significantly reduced.
Your interpersonal relationships also benefit from practicing effective listening. Active listening helps to build empathy between you and the other person. When you can understand another person’s feelings and the reasons they have for feeling that way, you strengthen your relationship with the other person.
Effective listening helps you resolve conflicts more positively with co-workers, friends, and family members. By listening without judgment, you can learn valuable information about the other person’s feelings and experiences. This information can help you understand why they act a certain way or why they have a certain mindset, even if it is different from your own.
When you practice effective listening with your children, you show them you value their thoughts and feelings rather than dismissing them. Doing this helps them feel respected and also cultivates their self-respect. By listening to your children and letting them try to work through a problem on their own rather than solving it for them, you are also teaching them an important life skill.
Active listening can have a positive impact on you as well, by helping you stress less about why others act the way they do. When there is healthy communication in a family, it can positively impact your marriage and child-rearing experience. When there is clear communication in the workplace, it helps avoid confusion and increase productivity.
What Key Points About Effective Listening Should You Keep In Mind?
You don’t need to be an expert in active listening or take time to deliberately practice it, to enjoy some benefits of it. Here are the key points to remember when you want to listen effectively to someone.
- Eye contact and open body language let the speaker know you’re listening to them and are interested in what they say.
- Ask questions if something isn’t clear to you.
- Keep an open mind, and don’t let your own opinions prevent you from listening to what the other person is saying.
- Don’t interrupt and don’t offer advice unless the person asks.
- Visualize what the person is saying in your head to help you comprehend and remember it.
- Give verbal and non-verbal feedback that shows you are listening to the speaker.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t succeed 100 percent of the time with effectively listening to other people. When you first start practicing these strategies, it can feel awkward and uncomfortable.
Active listening can be especially tricky in work relationships. Effective listening requires openness. It can be a delicate balancing act between being empathetic and still keeping the relationship professional. Of course, certain boundaries should never get crossed, but within those boundaries listening to other people will have a positive impact on the workplace environment.
If you aren’t a naturally patient person, you may feel like reflecting on, and paraphrasing what someone else is saying wastes time. Take a deep breath and relax. While it may initially seem like it costs you time, think about how much time, money, and effort you can save in the long-term by avoiding costly mistakes resulting from miscommunication.
However, keep in mind, when trying to be a more effective listener is that the effort can’t be all on you. If the other person finds it difficult to be open and honest with you, then your best efforts won’t amount to much. If the other person can’t remain calm when there is a disagreement, it will make it difficult to resolve the conflict in a way that is respectful and positive.
You can only control your behaviors and put aside your own biases. If the other person is not willing to do the same, communication may break down without any fault on your part. Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged if this happens. Keep trying, and you’ll find, with a few exceptions, most people will appreciate the effort and will respond positively by mirroring your behavior.