Do you think of yourself as a good listener? Do you give your full attention to your friends, family, and work colleagues or customers when they speak to you? Are you able to be fully present in the conversation? When you ask a question do you listen for the answer, or have you already answered it in your own head? Listening is a vital tool in life but it’s not something we’re actually ever taught to do properly. In this blog I discuss and share ways that can make you a good listener and tell-tale signs that may indicate you’re not as strong at listening as you thought.
Signs You’re Not A Strong Listener
I’d like to start with the things that could be construed as being negative, so that the rest of the blog can be positive and helpful. Communication and listening skills have been severely hampered by today’s high-tech environment. We tend to devote less time to listening to each other. This means that the skill of listening tends to get ignored or under-developed. What do I mean by that?
When you ask a question to someone have you already got an answer in your head that you’re expecting, and then when you don’t get that answer get annoyed? When someone is telling a story or telling you something about how they’re feeling, do you interrupt them? When someone is talking to you are you looking around the room, checking your phone, or looking at your watch? If someone asked you a question about what had been said, would you be able to answer correctly?
You may identify with some of these habits, and that’s good if you do. By acknowledging that you do some of them you now have information to help you make better choices. For example, keeping an open mind when asking a question. Listening fully to what’s being said. Giving the person who’s talking your full attention. Practising active, reflective, and mindful listening are all ways forward.
Active listening involves paying attention to the words that are being said. It also involves looking at what isn’t being said. Paying attention to the body language, posture, facial expressions, hand gestures, voice tone are all ways of actively listening. Lack of attention and poor listening will prevent you from understanding what is being said and this can cause upsets. Active listening implies respect because the person will feel that you’re giving them all your attention. Listen to learn, not react. In other words don’t listen with the sole intent of waiting to speak yourself. If you’re not used to active listening, it can take a while to unlearn old habits and learn new ones; but it’s totally worth the effort. How to do it?
If possible, face the person you’re talking to. Maintain eye contact. That doesn’t mean stare them out, but do try and keep steady eye contact. Some people don’t like making eye contact as they may find it rude or intrusive. (As a person who lives with autism I sometimes struggle with eye contact, but that’s often coupled with other feelings) If this is the situation then it may be best to mirror the other’s gestures in order to establish and maintain a comfortable rapport. But that doesn’t mean mimicking them. Remember, our eyes show emotion and give a lot away so they will show the other person if you’re not fully present in the conversation. It is important not to get distracted by your own thoughts and feelings.
Keeping an open mind is also really important. Of course sometimes you’ll be having a discussion about something and that will require you to give an opinion or make a judgement. As a rule though, judgements compromise our ability to be an active listener. In much the same way, interrupting a person, even if you’re listening to something negative, contradictory, or something with which you don’t agree, is not good.
By interrupting someone we’re demonstrating that we’re not interested or respectful of what’s being said (or trying to be said). We’re demonstrating that we believe our thoughts to be of greater importance. In conversation, there tends to be a natural overlap, but what I’m on about is when someone is discussing something and the “listener” is interrupting before a point has been made or question asked.
Active listening also involves empathy. This is the ability to identify and understand the emotions of other people. To put it another your, you are putting yourself in their shoes. Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy though because sympathy is showing feelings of pity for a person’s situation. Empathy can be demonstrated with responses such as “You have been through a hard time” or “You must feel confused or lost.” Demonstrating empathy doesn’t mean that you agree with what’s being said, but it does mean that you are acknowledging and validating what the person told you. By demonstrating empathy you are accepting their interpretation of the situation.
Reflective listening provides support. Reflective listening is a way of ensuring that you’ve understood what you’ve been told. This in turn makes the speaker feel heard and acknowledged. One way of listening reflectively is to paraphrase or repeat a statement you’ve heard, when the person talking has paused. This is often parodied in sketches about counsellors “I’m hearing you say….” but the truth is that if you use a soft, friendly tone and paraphrase effectively it will help you make your active listening stronger too. By doing this you can verify you’ve heard properly and understand that situation or question. For example:
“When you say xxxxxx, do you mean xxxxxx or xxxxxx?”
“I’m not sure I understand fully. Could you say it again?”
“Let me see if I have this right…you said xxxxx?”
Being mindful is being fully present and engaged in the conversation. We are human and we have thousands of thoughts going through our head every day. To practise mindful listening focus on the present moment only. Listen with your heart and your head. Be open-minded and show a genuine interest in what is being said. Focus on what the other person wants from the conversation, rather than what you want. Listen with all your senses and don’t finish the other’s sentences.
By improving our listening skills we can enhance our relationships with others for the good. It is also worth remembering that silence can be an effective communication tool as well. Positive, thoughtful silence can work just as well as a comment and sometimes it works better. Poor communication skills stifle us in every way because we are unable to connect with people but by working on the way we listen things will improve. There’s an old saying “You have two ears and only one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you talk.” There is some truth in this - but make sure it’s proper listening.