Have you ever been talking to someone about something important, and you knew that the other person wasn’t listening? How did that make you feel? Belittled? Slighted? Angry? Hurt?
Studies have shown that the feeling of connectedness we get from being heard created during a conversation aids in establishing and maintaining satisfying relationships as well as verifying our self-conceptions. So basically, when someone is actively listening to us, not only do we feel more positive about that individual, but we also feel better about ourselves.
Feeling good isn’t the only benefit that results from listening to someone attentively. Listening improves the quality of our relationships, the successfulness of our business, our job prospects, and our learning. Let’s take a look at how and why this happens.
Listening Improves Personal Relationships
We are naturally prone to be self-centered, worrying about our own emotions and thoughts rather than others. When we focus on ourselves, it’s easy to blame others because we haven’t heard what they are saying. When we listen, the focus is on the other person, not ourselves.
Listening to your friends and family will improve the depth of your relationships. Active listening will enhance communication and reduce friction. Listening allows the other person to trust you by demonstration your desire to comprehend their thoughts and words. It also allows you to truly understand the other person’s situation and be empathic and supportive.
Romantic relationships are often emotionally charged, leading to angry outbursts and arguing over relatively trivial matters. The amount of stress between partners can lead to physical health issues as well as mental fatigue. Active listening has been shown to reduce these adverse outcomes.
Listening will reduce misunderstandings and miscommunications, which are other triggers of arguments. Our friends and family have stories to tell, and as a loving companion, we should want to provide a safe place for them to tell those stories.
Listening Improves the Workplace Environment
Listening to others can help you understand workplace problems better if you are a team leader or manager. Studies have shown that effective leaders have excellent listening skills. They demonstrate their attention by looking at speakers in the eye and paraphrasing to ensure their understanding. Leaders can relate what they heard accurately to a third party and listen without becoming defensive or emotional. They can also listen with respect and keep confidences when asked to do so.
Because of these qualities, having exceptional listening abilities is one of the top skills that employers look for when choosing entry-level employees. It is also a skill required by many companies for promotions. Not surprisingly, businesses have discovered that employees are not trained in listening. As a result, 64% of organizations provide listening training in some form or another for their employees.
If you are part of a work team, listening aids in collaboration efforts to develop effective solutions. Listening allows you to hear ideas that others bring to the table without judgment or censor, making it easier to find the best course of action for everyone concerned.
Employees should listen to instructions to complete tasks correctly the first time. When jobs are completed well, and promptly, there is more of a likelihood that employees will receive praise from managers, which improves the motivation level for the employee. In turn, well-done work can lead to promotion, further providing employees internal incentives.
On the other side of the employee-employer divide, listening to employees will also go a long way in creating a positive work environment. An employee who feels heard is inspired to work harder.
Salespeople should listen to others to better meet the needs of potential customers and current clients. Not only will listening improve the chance of a sale, but by listening, the salesperson establishes a positive relationship with the client, which can provide future purchases down the line.
The direct interaction between a small business owner and his or her clients is vital. It provides an opportunity for the owner to improve their service or product to meet the needs or desires of the customer better. Listening to both positive and negative feedback can help the business grow.
Listening Improves Student Grades
How well you listen affects your grades and overall learning at every level, from elementary to university. For example, when taking classes at the university, students are required to listen passively about 55% of the time. Unfortunately, many students are never truly taught how to listen effectively and, as a result, perform poorly on classwork.
In one study, 400 freshmen were tested on listening at the beginning of the academic year. About half of the students that scored low on the listening test were on academic probation at the end of the year. Nearly 70% of those that scored well on the listening test were Honors Students at the end of the first year, showing a correlation to listening abilities and academic success.
One study compared the grades of students who emailed, texted, sent messages, or update their social media status during lectures to those that were active listeners and found that students that are multitasking during class have poorer academic outcomes than those that listened without distractions.
Other studies have shown that students do not understand that they are in control of their active listening. Not surprisingly, students find that they can comprehend more of what they hear when they use metacognitive strategies.
When students use pre-questions to prepare before a lecture, they exhibit more active interest in the class itself. The pre-questioning process includes reviewing prior knowledge of a topic, review the information you have already obtained, and doing some research.
With prior knowledge activated, students retain more when using directed and selective attention during the lecture. This type of interest management calls for focusing on the main points while paying less attention to secondary examples provided the listener has understood the information.
Hand-written notes will aid in processing and recalling the information from the class better. As you take notes, listen for key points and ask for clarification if needed. After the session, take the time to go your notes looking for gaps in the information. If a substantial section of knowledge is missing, do further research or discuss the topic with another student to find out what you need to know.
Active listening can be improved in the classroom setting when students reflect on their listening afterward. Were there aspects that need to be improved? Were they distracted by background noise or their cell phones ringing? Can they eliminate those distractions by sitting away from the door or window or turning off their phones during class? Self-reflection will help students realize that they are in control of their listening process.
Your foreign language studies can also be greatly benefited by listening more. Studies have shown that your ability to speak another language improves when you have learned to listen and understand the language before attempting to express it.
Key Listening Skills
Listening is a skill that can be improved. As you become a better listener, you’ll find that your work, school, and personal relationships are enhanced. Let’s take a few minutes to examine each of the following characteristics of an excellent listener to narrow down the aspects you can refine.
To listen effectively, you need to be attentive to what is being said. To be a vigilant listener, you must eliminate external and internal distractions that impair your ability to focus. Internal distractors include headache, worry, hunger, and daydreaming. External distractions could be ringing phones, side conversations, or background noise.
Once you determine what type of distraction is keeping your from actively listening, you may be able to eliminate it. For instance, if there is a lot of background noise, you could ask the speaker to repeat what he or she said, making a concerted effort to pay better attention the second time around.
You can reduce peripheral distractions by looking directly at the speaker. Your attention is fixed when you are focused on the person you are listening to. Paying attention in this way will also help you decipher body language clues which will help you understand the meaning behind the spoken words.
If you allow internal distractions to keep you from listening, you may be your own worst enemy. Stay internally focused by not preparing a rebuttal while the other person is speaking. Mentally rehearsing what you want to say will prevent you from accurately hearing what is said.
If you are hungry or thirsty or not feeling well, your body will focus on those needs rather than what you should be listening to. Eliminate these distractions by taking care of them immediately. Eat, get a drink of water, use the restroom, do what you need to so that you can feel mental space for listening tasks.
Daydreaming or worry should be set aside for a time when you do not need to be actively attentive. Even if the topic under discussion is not one you particularly find interesting, make a concerted effort to stay focused and attentive. Take notes and ask questions to keep your mind from wandering.
Ask Questions and Request Clarification
To be an active listener, you should ask open-ended and probing questions until you accurately understand what the speaker is saying. People who are perceived as being good listeners are actively involved through insightful and constructive questions.
Asking these types of questions lets the speaker know that the listener not only heard what he or she was saying but that their words were understood. Be sure not to hijack the conversation though with your own stories. There will be time enough for sharing after you have listened to all the other person has to say.
Also, use genuine questions to request clarification of what you are hearing. Misunderstandings can be avoided with just a few clarification questions.
Paraphrase and Summarize
As you listen, take the time to paraphrase or summarize what you believe that the speaker is saying. Repeating back what you have heard helps you clarify the main points in your mind, shows the listener that you are indeed paying attention, and reduces misinterpretations. Use phrases such as ‘So what I hear you say is…’ or ‘It seems you are saying…’
Summarizing and paraphrasing are especially useful listening strategies if you find yourself responding emotionally to what the speaker has said. Perhaps you misunderstood the statement, or maybe the speaker didn’t express something as well as it could have been. It’s better to make sure instead of jumping to the defensive.
Be Attuned to Feelings by Observing Body Language
It is essential to pay attention to the speaker’s body language to determine what it is she or he is trying to say. Some experts estimate that about 80% of what we communicate comes from body language. As you listen to what is being said, also pay attention to perspiration and respiration rates, the speaker’s posture, gestures, and facial expressions.
As you listen to someone, notice his or her choice of words. Pay attention to their speaking speed and volume. Become aware of the tone of voice as well. Using these clues, you may be able to determine the emotions behind the words.
The best listeners can create a positive experience for the speaker by expressing his or her support and interest. Issues and conflicts can be discussed openly in a safe, non-judgemental environment by paying attention to the emotions that aren’t being directly mentioned.
Once you have identified the emotions behind the words, acknowledge them. Use simple phrases to validate the speaker’s state, such as ‘It seems you are ….’ or ‘What I sense is that you feel…’
Self-awareness is a critical component of active listening. It requires you to consider what is being said, who is speaking, and why you are reacting that way. For example, if something your spouse says triggers an emotional response in you, being self-aware will help you not to respond defensively or aggressively, escalating the situation.
Being self-away also means that you are disciplined enough not to judge the speaker or the thoughts and emotions being expressed. Instead, suspending judgment and truly listening creates a safe environment where both listener and speaker can communicate maturely.
Being aware of which of the four primary listening styles you use can improve your overall listening ability. The four methods are people, time, content, and action-oriented listening. Everyone uses one of these listening styles, which may vary depending on the circumstances.
People-oriented listeners are concerned with the feelings of others. They make an effort to hear what is being said with an emphasis on emotion. Sometimes this type of communication is felt to be intrusive by those that listen in another manner.
Time-oriented listeners focus on time constraints. They sometimes try to rush speakers by commenting on the time. They prefer clear and concise answers. At times, if they feel the speaker has gone on too long about a subject, they may tune out.
Listeners who focus on content pay more attention to what is being said. They may not take into consideration the feelings behind the words. They tend to concentrate on the facts, which sometimes causes them to ignore the emotional context.
If you focus on what actions must be done, when those actions must be done, and who must complete those actions, you may be employing the action-oriented listening style. Listeners of this type prefer clear statements. They may also be impatient and try to hurry the conversation along.
It is essential to show respect when listening to others. When responding or asking for clarification, do not be aggressive. Keep the conversation relaxed and courteous even if you disagree with what you are hearing.
When providing feedback, find a way that helps the listener consider alternatives rather than proving him or her wrong. Try not to be critical but rather empathic. Making gestures to speed things along or demonstrating your impatience through foot-tapping or inattention is not respectful. It’s indispensable to be patient. Wait as long as it takes for the speaker to express his or her thoughts fully.
Barriers to Active Listening
Active listening can take real commitment. Small things can sidetrack us without our conscious knowledge. Here are a few obstacles to active listening you should be aware of.
Filtering happens when you don’t wish to hear what the speaker is saying. It might be a conscious decision where you ignore a comment that may be an emotional trigger. You might also filter statements without realizing you are doing it. To reduce filtering, paraphrase, and summarize what you have heard at appropriate points in the conversation.
There are both internal and external distractions. Daydreaming, worry, and physical discomforts can distract you from the conversation. Background noise, side conversations, or your phone are examples of external distractions.
If your phone rings when you should be listening, don’t answer it. If it is a vitally important call, apologize, excuse yourself and take care of the matter quickly so that you can return your full attention to the speaker.
Your role as the listener is to hear what the speaker is saying, not to respond. Mentally rehearsing your rejoinder will interfere with proper listening. If a response is called for, take the time to summarize and paraphrase what you heard, before formulating your answer. Don’t be afraid to take a few minutes to gather your thoughts.
In our efforts to help, we may have the desire to jump in and give advice. Our well-intentioned solutions may not be what the speaker is looking for. Stay focused on the speaker, even if you have a great idea. Instead, continue asking reflective questions to see if the person wishes advice.
If you are reacting to the speaker or what is being said emotionally, you may be judging. Doing so impairs your ability to listen genuinely. Don’t interrupt or show disdain with facial expressions or gestures. Make an effort to suspend judgment by understanding the meaning behind the words. Make eye contact even if you are uncomfortable or in disagreement with the discussion.
When responding to a person, avoid phrases like ‘I feel’ or ‘I think’ or ‘I know how you feel.’ These types of comments invalidate the speaker’s experience and show that you are reacting rather than listening.
Daydreaming often happens when you are not extremely interested in the topic under discussion. It may seem your thoughts are superior to the issue. However, daydreaming shows a lack of respect for the speaker. When you find your mind wandering, make an effort to pay more attention to the conversation. There will be time enough to daydream later.
Don’t just pretend to pay attention either. Do so by asking follow-up questions, attending to what is being said, and participating in the discussion.
Whole Body Listening
When you listen, you should do so with your entire body. Let’s see how this can be done.
When you listen to someone, you should make regular eye contact. Try to meet the speaker’s eyes between 60 and 70% of the time while taking the time to look away so as not to intimidate the person. Studies have shown that people who make eye contact are believed to be friendlier than those who didn’t.
When making eye contact, hold the speaker’s gaze for about five seconds before looking away. Be sure not to look down when breaking the connection, as this can be interpreted as a sign of dishonesty. Instead, look to the side, ending the contact with a nod of the head or gesture.
If making eye contact is overwhelming to you because you suffer from social anxiety disorder (SAD) or autism, begin by making eye contact with TV characters. Then practice eye contact with people that you trust before working your way up to acquaintances and persons that make you uncomfortable, like your manager at work.
You’ll use your ears to listen attentively. This process goes beyond hearing what is being said. It also means you will ignore background noise or side conversations, selectively attending to the speaker of primary importance.
While you are listening, you should not be speaking. Don’t interrupt the speaker. Instead, wait for pauses in the conversation to ask for confirmation or paraphrase what is being said. You can also provide verbal clues that indicate to the speaker that you are paying attention, like ‘yeah’ or ‘uh-huh.’
Use your mouth to smile at the person who is talking. Smiling lets the person know that you are interested in the conversation. A genuine smile promotes emotional bonding and inspires trust.
Hands and Arms
You can use your hand to demonstrate understanding through gestures. You could also touch the speaker’s hand or shoulder, acknowledging that you are present and empathetic to the conversation. If the speaker draws back, he or she may be uncomfortable with touching or not feel as open towards you. Don’t take the rejection personally. Continue to listen with an open mind.
Make sure your arms are not crossed in front of your body while you are listening. This closed body posture indicates that you are not receptive to what you are hearing. Pay attention to your hands as well. If you find yourself making fists, it could mean you are responding emotionally to the speaker, which will prevent you from attentively listening well.
Feet and Legs
Some people tap their feet or jiggle their legs unconsciously. Even though this may not be a sign of inattentiveness, a listener may interpret these rapid movements as impatience. He or she may feel less inclined to continue speaking.
Nod your head when you hear ideas you agree with or understand. Keep your body centered toward the speaker, not away. Remember to uncross your arms and keep your legs still. Lean toward the person talking, demonstrating your receptiveness.
Sometimes we will respond emotionally to what the speaker is saying or to the speaker. It’s essential to use your mind rather than react from an emotional place when listening to others. It is also crucial that we remain focused on the conversation, not allowing worry, daydreams, or the rush to respond to sidetrack our attention.
Listening with the heart does not mean responding with emotion. Instead, we are empathetic towards the speaker and his or her thoughts. Use summarizing and follow-up questions to fully understand while showing concern with open body language and eye contact.
Listening to others is a skill that, once mastered, can lead to better quality personal, work, and academic outcomes through improved interactions. As we have seen, good listeners have more fulfilling relationships, become productive employees and leaders at work, and are better students in general.
By becoming more self-aware of barriers, we may have that prevent us from listening effectively and avoid them. When you apply the attentive listening practiced mentioned in this article regularly in your life, you will find more satisfaction in the depth of your academic, work, and personal growth.