Listening is an art and a skill. However, oftentimes, you may only hear but not listen. You may find yourself distracted, zoned out, or you may start wandering before someone is done talking. Sometimes you may wonder what to say next, which may make you miss out on essential details.
Whether you’re struggling to improve your personal relationships with friends and families or you’re trying to become better at your workplace, you’ll need to learn to listen better. Practicing active listening helps you to concentrate on what’s being said rather than just absorbing what is being said.
Read on to learn more about active listening and some ways on how to improve your listening skills.
The Difference Between Listening and Hearing
Hearing requires no effort and involves an automatic brain response to sound. Also, hearing is effortless, accidental, and involuntary. You may hear specific sounds, but unless you’re inclined to respond, you’ll ignore them.
Listening is focused and purposeful and not effortless or accidental. What’s more, listening involves being present and concentrating with the intent of understanding what is being expressed by the other person. When you’re listening, you’re not only paying attention to the conversation, but also to the use of voice and language.
You are also aware of the verbal and non-verbal communication signs. Listening is intentional and voluntary. Some verbal signs could be positive body language, questioning, maintaining eye contact, nodding, and asking for clarification. When listening, you may also display non-verbal signs like smiling, adjusting your posture, and you won’t be distracted throughout the conversation.
What is Active Listening?
As humans, we’re selective listeners. That means that we focus on some words and fail to pay attention to the rest, especially when we’re easily distracted. Sometimes the distractions could be random movements or sounds. In some cases, your own feelings and thoughts may make you lose focus.
Your values and biases may allow you to pick an argument when another person talks, which means you’ll no longer be focused on the message. At this point, your valuable time and energy are wasted as you’re figuring out how to respond and not giving the other person your undivided attention.
Active listening is a technique that seeks to provide complete attention to the speaker by building rapport, trust, and understanding. The process involves concentrating on what’s being said with your mind and body instead of absorbing what someone is saying passively.
The difference between active listening and passive listening is that the latter involves listening without the intention to respond. With passive listening, your mind is likely to wander, but with active listening, all your attention is on the speaker with the intent of giving a response.
Benefits of Active Listening
Some advantages of active listening include:
It Makes You Approachable
Once you’ve mastered the art of listening actively and patiently, more people feel inclined to communicate with you as that shows them that you’re there for them. That will allow others to express their feelings freely.
Helps Build Trust
You invite people to open up as you cultivate the habit of listening sincerely. People can tell that you’re not using some details of what they said to jump to conclusions. Building trust requires patience and time, but that could lead to lifetime friendships.
Works to Broaden Your Perspective and View of Life
Listening to other people’s perspectives and opinions allows you to look at life from different angles.
Makes You More Patient
It takes time to be a good listener, and this won’t happen in one sitting. However, you’ll realize that you get better at listening eventually, something that cultivates patience. You not only become patient at letting someone express themselves without being judgemental, but you also develop the patience to concentrate and understand what the other person is saying.
Helps to Solve Problems
You can’t solve problems if you don’t listen. For example, in the workplace, if you’re the boss, it’s essential to listen to your employees as they may be the first to spot any flaws. They could also recommend improvements to make the situation better.
Increase Your Knowledge
Having effective listening skills makes you more capable and competent. What’s more, active listening builds knowledge and allows you to fulfill specific requirements as you learn through this process.
Save Money and Time
You can save time and money by practicing active listening. For example, at work, listening reduces the chances of making mistakes that could lead to loss of time and money, which could be damaging to any business.
Examples of Active Listening Skills
Below are some examples of active listening techniques.
That involves paying attention to body language, which is yours and the other persons. You can maintain eye contact while listening to the person speaking.
Informational listening involves listening with the intent to understand and not just hear what’s being said.
With visualization, you picture and form images of what the speaker is communicating while being present in the conversation.
Emotional intelligence means thinking about the feelings and emotions behind the words being said. For example, when a friend is complaining about her boyfriend not appreciating her enough.
When someone is talking to you, you can ask questions or repeat the main points that may be valuable to the conversation.
Social intelligence includes understanding humor, social situations, motivations, and subtleties. In most cases, people communicate to build rapport or achieve a goal rather than passing on information.
Active listening involves allowing the person speaking to do it at length without interrupting him or her. Practicing patience while communicating is vital as most people listen and interject when they feel there’s something they don’t agree with.
Three Elements of Active Listening
Some of the components of active listening include:
- Comprehending- That means paying attention to the speaker’s verbal and non-verbal language to understand what’s being communicated.
- Retaining- As a listener, you need to remember critical points that the speaker passes across through note-taking or with their memory.
- Responding– This involves giving feedback after you’ve understood the message. Responding also furthers the conversation, but this will only happen if you remember what was said.
Become A Better Listener
You can learn to listen better by:
1. Limiting Your Distractions
Nothing says inconsiderate like letting a device interrupt a conversation. However, this is something that almost everyone struggles with daily. You could be speaking to someone and the phone next to you buzzing with phone calls, texts, and emails. That makes it impossible to listen and understand what the other person is communicating. You can learn how to listen better by silencing your device.
Some other external distraction, like loud noises, can interfere with effective listening. In such a case, you can move to a place that’s more silent to have a meaningful conversation. Worth noting is that distractions are not only external, but they could also be internal as well.
Internal distractions can be responses to the environment, or they could originate internally. You might start feeling uncomfortable, anxious, or hungry, something that could make it challenging to listen. These types of distractions may also happen when you start thinking of topics unrelated to what’s being discussed.
The effects of distraction happen when you fail to comprehend what was said. You may end up missing some essential details. What’s more, you may end up feeling emotionally disconnected from the other person as you were distracted while listening.
You can limit internal distractions by being in the moment and recollecting your thoughts. Focus on what the speaker is saying and seek to understand before you interrupt. Face the person, make eye contact, and be present. Do your best and avoid thinking about your personal issues or other things that have no relation to the conversation.
Ensure that you make consistent eye contact as it communicates focus, interest, and understanding. Nevertheless, some people may be uncomfortable with long and direct stares, as this could make them anxious. Cut back on the stares, and use the other active listening skills if you’re dealing with a shy person.
2. Practicing Emotional Intelligence
Sometimes listening to what isn’t being said is as critical as the words the other person is using. When you’re actively listening, you not only get the details of what’s being communicated, but also the emotional message behind what the speaker is relaying.
You’ll be able to pick emotions like hopelessness, sadness, anxiety, fear, love, and more. Emotional intelligence involves realizing that people want to be heard, seen, and noticed. EQ has five elements, which include empathy, motivation, self-regulation, self-awareness, and social skill.
You need to be empathetic to the person speaking to you. Make him or her feel heard by acknowledging and respecting their emotions. When practicing empathic listening, you are listening to what the other person says, how they feel about it, and how they mean what they say. If it’s your time to respond, you need to confirm that you’ve understood what was said and how you feel about what was said.
Empathy is beneficial when someone is dealing with hard to explain experiences or communicating a stressful situation. Moreover, being empathetic means you are also trying to put yourself in the speaker’s shoes while still understanding their perspective.
It’s vital to remember that active listening doesn’t necessarily involve solving problems. Sometimes the person is looking to communicate their problems and frustrations. By practicing emotional intelligence, you’ll be able to listen better and respond to the mood the other person presents.
Furthermore, practicing emotional intelligence means you don’t interrupt the speaker incessantly. You need to allow the speaker to express everything before responding. It’s crucial to practice patience as you listen since some people take time to open up or express what they want.
3. Being Patient
In today’s world, we’re used to hearing and not listening. That makes it easy for us to interrupt when someone is talking, which makes you rude and also limits the details you absorb. An essential aspect that you need to cultivate to listen better is to avoid finishing the speaker’s sentences even if you know what they are about to say.
Interrupting sends different messages like you don’t have time for the other person’s opinion, you don’t care what they think, and you’re having a contest rather than a conversation. You also portray yourself as more relevant, interesting, and accurate than the speaker.
What most people don’t understand is that interrupting someone in the middle of a conversation also interferes with their train of thought. You may realize that your counter-argument could be addressed later in the conversation. If you’re having a lengthy discussion, you could project positive feedback by using verbal signs like I understand or okay.
If you’re an agile talker or a quick thinker, you may find it challenging to keep quiet and wait for the other party to finish. However, you can practice being patient by relaxing and focusing on what’s being said instead of thinking of how quickly you should respond.
Being patient also involves paying attention to what isn’t said, that is the nonverbal cues. Focus on the tone of the speaker’s voice to detect some cues that could tell you whether the person is doing well or struggling with something he/she isn’t ready to share.
Furthermore, when having a face to face conversation with someone, it’s easier to detect irritation, enthusiasm, or boredom in the slope of their shoulders, expression on their mouths, and how their eyes respond. You need to be patient to get these clues; otherwise, you might miss out on some essential information.
If you feel the need to ask a question or ask for clarification, wait for the speaker to first pause instead of interrupting.
Avoid suggesting solutions when listening to someone talk about a problem they are dealing with. Sometimes the speaker is looking for a person to share with and not for advice. Nonetheless, if you feel that your solution would really help, you can ask the other person if they would like to hear your ideas. That creates a relaxed environment, and you can be free to share your ideas if permitted.
An excellent way to prepare before time is to be aware of your biases and coming up with reasons why you could feel a certain way. Specific words could elicit a positive or negative emotional reaction in you. Knowing this beforehand could help you prepare for such a situation and avoid it.
4. Asking Questions
Another way you can practice listening better is by asking questions. Seek to understand why the person took the step and what prompted the action. Get clarifications to what’s being said; this will make the conversation more interesting.
However, asking the right questions is what determines effective communication. Some questions can help you gather information, help the other party to learn, and build stronger relationships.
You can start by using open and closed questions. Open questions prompt longer answers. Examples include how the meeting was, what happened at the party, why did you react that way, what happened next, and more.
These kinds of questions seek to find out more detail and develop an open conversation. Moreover, they will help you find out what the other person’s perspective on the issue lies.
Closed questions test you or the other party’s understanding. They can also help you make a decision or conclude a discussion. You need to be careful with closed questions as they can lead to awkward silences or end the conversation. It’s best to avoid these questions if your conversation is in full flow.
Some examples of closed questions include Is everyone satisfied with the outcome? If I get the degree, will that prompt a raise?
Another set of questions that can help you listen better include funnel questions. That means starting off with general questions but shifting down to specific points by seeking for more details. It’s a technique used by detectives. Funnel questions increase the other party’s confidence. When using this type of questioning, it’s best to start with closed questions and move to open questions.
Excellent examples of funnel questions would be, Did you get the problem solved? What were the challenges? How were you able to overcome the challenges?
Leading questions are also fantastic if you’re trying to let the respondent know what you are thinking without being too direct. These questions help when you need to close a sale or when you need to get the answer you want without leaving the other party feeling like they’ve got no choice.
Some examples include, Would you like me to opt for plan B? Would you like B or C? Option C is better, right? You need to use leading questions with care in case the other person misinterprets you as being dishonest or manipulative.
Probing questions are ideal when you need to get more detail. To make this questioning more effective, include the word exactly. For example, you could say who exactly went to the party? What exactly did he say?
These questions help to draw information out of people who are not willing to share. Also, it helps you gain clarification to ensure that you understand the story clearly.
The last set of questions is the rhetorical ones that don’t expect a response or a reply. Rhetorical questions get the other person to agree with your point of view, and they help engage both parties.
Examples include, Doesn’t Stanley do his work really well? Wouldn’t it be nice to have him at the meeting?
Asking questions is a powerful way of learning and building relationships. What’s more, questions help you to avoid misunderstanding when communicating with the other person. Some questions are persuasive, which helps the other person accept your point of view. Questions can also help defuse a heated conversation.
5. Being Present
It’s normal to experience distractions and have your thoughts wander off when listening. Sometimes you are physically present, but your thoughts are not. You can find yourself in the future or in the past, thinking of how you experienced a similar situation.
Fortunately, it’s easy to get over this and bring yourself into the present. If you find this difficult, you can start by practicing conscious observation. Start by taking a phone. Look and observe it without thinking of whether you need to get the latest model. Observe it for what it is. You can also practice 60-second meditation by sitting and closing your eyes, inhale and exhale for 60 seconds.
Also, you can practice being present by taking notes. If you find your thoughts wandering when in a meeting, take a notepad and write some key points. That will make it easier to remember them and will also allow you to be present.
Another aspect of being present is to have attentive body language. That involves you smiling and making eye contact. Ensure that your body is facing the person you’re talking with, and avoid appearing fidgety or impatient. Don’t answer any calls or text as this could tell the other person that you are not concerned with the conversation.
What’s more, you need to cushion your schedule. Have a set time that will allow for a healthy conversation. Find a location that’s convenient for both of you as this will help you avoid clock-watching. That will give you time to concentrate on what’s being said instead of always checking your clock to see if you’re late.
Being present also involves choosing to listen. Although it’s possible to hear what the other party is saying while playing games on your phone, it sends the message that you’re not interested or what you’re doing is more important. Remember that something’s got to give when you are communicating.
If you notice there’s a pause in your interaction, don’t rush to respond or give advice. That’s the time to take in what’s been said and gain some more insight into the situation. The element of being present allows you to choose your words, which means you can be clear without reacting.
Being judgemental is another thing that interferes with our patience. The speaker could say something alarming, and in your mind, you’d rush to call the moves made stupid and unsound. However, being judgemental compromises your effectiveness as a listener, which means you end up missing out on some information. Always have an open mind and listen without making your conclusions. Seek to understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings by listening.
Important to Note
Don’t forget to listen to silence. Sometimes an absence of words could have a deeper meaning as the words that are said. The trick with silence is that it could signal contentment, shyness, anxiety, fear, and more. Nevertheless, in some cases, silence could mean nothing at all. It could be a time to rest or just a pause to let what’s being said sink in.
Silence gives you and the speaker time to rest and think. If you’re talking to a close friend, you could realize that these periods of silence are more calming and comfortable. It’s easier to attempt to break the silence, especially if you’re a huge talker. Remember that listening is done with both eyes and ears. Look out for the other person’s body language to know if it’s time to interrupt or keep quiet.
Don’ts of Being a Better Listener
Avoid these things if you want to become a better listener.
- Don’t accept what you don’t understand or what isn’t clear. While it’s vital to pay attention to what’s being said, find a convenient time to have something clarified.
- Don’t multitask during a conversation as this sends a signal that you’re not interested in what the other person is saying.
- Don’t listen with a closed mind or with biases. Avoid having preconceived ideas or expectations.
- Don’t argue or be judgemental
- Don’t assume you’re being attacked or start becoming defensive
- Don’t have a closed, aggressive, or condescending body language
- Don’t make promises you won’t keep
- Don’t only identify what’s said. Instead, put yourself in the speaker’s shoes and empathize.
- Don’t respond by relating what the other person says to your own experience or stories.
- Don’t reflect on the wrongness or rightness of what they are saying
Most people fear that the other person will perceive their listening as an agreement. However, this is not the case. Listening doesn’t mean that you should silence your ideas or opinions, but it shows that you respect what the other person is saying and that you’re willing to make time to hear them out. Listening requires an open mind.
Having effective and excellent listening skills doesn’t come in a day, it’s something you cultivate over time. You can become a better listener by listening to an audiobook or a podcast when you’re commuting to work or going out for a walk. Keep practicing, and with time, you’ll notice a change in your listening habits.