Being a Good Listener

Listen or thy tongue will keep thee deaf. - Native American Proverb

Listening is an essential part of communication, and it is different from hearing. Being a good and patient listener helps you not only solve many problems at work or home, but also to see the world through the eyes of others, thereby opening your understanding and enhancing your capacity for empathy. Besides which, you learn a lot from listening. As deceptively simple as listening to and acknowledging other people may seem, doing it well, particularly when disagreements arise, takes sincere effort and lots of practice.

Steps

  1. Place yourself in the other person's shoes. It is often too easy to wonder about how what the other person is telling you is impacting you. Active listening is not about inward thinking. Instead, you must draw away from the temptation to do this by looking at the problems from the other person's perspective and actively trying to see his or her point of view. It is not a good idea to consider yourself to be smarter than the speaker and assume that if you would have been in his or her shoes, you would have seen your way through the problem much faster.
  2. Create a conducive physical and mental space. Remove all distractions. Give the speaker 100% of your attention. Turn off cell phones It may be easiest to arrange to talk somewhere that distractions will not occur. Quiet your mind and open yourself to whatever the person might have to say.
  3. Stop talking/be silent. It might sound obvious and trite, but one of the biggest obstacles to listening, for many people, is resisting the impulse to 'chime in'. Many people think that silence is awkward, and want to fill it in with their own thoughts. Likewise, many think that empathy means sharing with the listener similar experiences that the listener has had. Both can be helpful, but they are easily abused. Put aside your own needs, and wait for the other person to talk at their own pace.
  4. Follow and encourage the speaker with body language. Nodding your head will indicate you hear what the speaker is saying, and will encourage them to continue. Adopting body postures, positions and movements that are similar to the speaker (called mirroring) will allow the speaker to relax and open up more.
  5. Practice the empathetic sounding back technique. At appropriate intervals during the conversation, it is helpful to "summarize and restate" and/or "repeat and encourage" the main points:

    • Repeat and encourage: Repeat some of the things said by the speaker. At the same time, encourage the speaker with positive feedback. For example, you might say: "You didn't enjoy having to take the blame. I can see why." Go easy with this technique, however, because if you overwork it, it may come across as being patronizing.
    • Summarize and restate: It is also very useful to summarize what the speaker is saying and restate it in your own words. This is a form of reassuring the speaker that you have truly been listening to what he or she is saying. It also provides the speaker with an opportunity to correct any mistaken assumptions or misconceptions that may have arisen during the course of the conversation. This is an especially good technique to try when you find yourself getting frustrated or restless in your listening.
  6. Do not interrupt with what you feel or think about the topic being discussed. Wait for another person to ask your opinion before interrupting the flow of discussion. Active listening requires the listener to shelve his or her own opinions temporarily, and await appropriate breaks in the conversation for summarizing. Abstain from giving direct advice. Instead, let him or her talk the situation out and find his or her own way. Besides, if he or she takes your advice and something goes wrong, he or she will be likely to blame you (whether he or she tells you or not).
  7. Ask meaningful and empowering questions. Do not seek to probe or make the other person defensive. Rather, aim to use questions as a means by which the speaker can begin to reach his or her own conclusions about the concerns or issues being raised. Once you have shown empathetic listening, it is time to move into empowering listening by re-framing the questions that you ask the speaker. For example: "You didn't enjoy having to take the blame. But I cannot understand why you feel blamed rather than merely being asked not to do something that way." Wording the question in this manner presents the speaker with a need to respond directly to your lack of grasping something. In the process of doing so, the speaker should begin to move from a more emotional response to a more constructive response.
  8. Wait for the person to open up. In the process of encouraging a constructive response, an active listener must continue to be patient and let the speaker acquire his or her full flow of thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Keep yourself in his or her shoes and try to estimate why he or she is in such a situation.
  9. Use Body Language|body gestures and have a pleasant facial expression to express your interest. Active listening involves the entire body and face--both yours and that of the speaker:

    • Your expression: Look interested and meet the gaze of your speaker from time to time. Do not overwhelm the speaker by staring intently, but do reflect friendliness and openness to what you are listening to.
    • Read between the lines: Always be alert for things that have been left unsaid or for cues that can help you gauge the speaker's true feelings. Watch the facial and body expressions of the speaker to try to gather all information you can, not just from the words. Imagine what kind of state of mind would have made you acquire such expressions, body language, and volume.
    • Speak at approximately the same energy level as the other person. This way, he or she will know that the message is getting through and that there is no need to repeat.
  10. Be patient and respect pauses. Do not jump to speak up after the speaker has come to his or her own conclusions or resolutions and there is a pause. It is possible that more is yet to be said by the speaker. Let the speaker be the first to break this silence. You can always come back with your solutions or suggestions next time you talk, or the speaker may ask you to clarify your thoughts or offer more opinions at the time. Listening is about understanding another person, not about making suggestions (unless asked).
  11. Try to reassure the speaker that all is well. Whatever the conclusion of the conversation, let the speaker know that you have been happy to listen and to be a sounding board. Make it clear that you are open to further discussion if need be, but that you will not pressure him or her at all. In addition, reassure the speaker of your intention to keep the discussion confidential. Offer to assist with any solutions if you have the ability, time, and expertise. Do not build up false hopes, however. If the only resource you can provide is to continue to be an active listener, make that very clear; in and of itself, this is a very valuable help to any person.
  12. Accept that everyone has a unique thought process and ways to express himself/herself. Too often we jump to conclusions before others finish talking because we place information we hear into our own thought process. Try not to do that. Instead, look for fine differences if it sounds like the speaker may be agreeing with you, and look for areas he or she might indicate agreement if it sounds like an objection. Understand that you do not need 100% agreement to reach the same decision.
  13. Just because someone is speaking to you, do not presume that they are asking you for your input! All too often we think the other person really wants to know what we think about what they are saying…wrong! Wait, let the speaker ask you for your opinion, thoughts or ideas. Otherwise, you may become the speaker but you will not have a “listener” in the audience! This is a fun exercise. You may be surprised at how many people will NOT ask you for your input. And all these years that you have simply “chimed in” with your input, you thought they actually wanted it.
  14. Most information is not remembered because we are thinking of OUR response to the speaker and therefore missed what was said. Resist the urge to formulate your responses. That is active thinking, not listening. If need be, take notes that will trigger your response should you have opportunity later to share it.
  15. Give your full attention of what you're going to do.

Tips

  • Never criticize while listening, and never attack another person for his or her feelings. This spoils your reputation as a listener and will completely remove the speaker's motivation to speak up.
  • Listening is about creating a caring environment in which the other person feels encouraged by your ability to understand.
  • Don't judge anyone for their opinion or actions. Remember you, like everyone else has done or felt something you're not proud of now. Ask yourself: "Who am I to judge anyone?"
  • The more you listen, the more trusted you become.
  • The more difficult listening becomes, the more important it is to listen.
  • Remember that when your counterpart feels that he or she has been listened to, he or she is much more likely to listen to your ideas. On the contrary, if no one ever listened to each other, then they would fall victim to bad listening, and would not have a chance to fully express themselves. Your desire to express should begin with listening well to others.
  • Postpone an important conversation if you are not in the mood to listen. It is better to not talk about it if you are not ready than to try to force through a conversation where you are too distracted by emotions, worries, and other things that prevent you from listening.
  • Avoid phrases that imply that you have not listened fully to the points communicated to you such as "Yeah but..." Instead, learn to use phrases that provide confirmation that you have heard the other side fully, such as "I see. Now tell me what you would say to this..."
  • Keep in mind that sometimes we need to listen "between the lines," but there are times when we need to absorb things at face value. When we listen intensively, our minds are often busy placing what we hear into the situation and our emotions, which creates barriers to our ability to listen fully what is being said. This is similar to making judgments and drawing conclusions before all has been said. Don't do that. Take it at its face value and go with the flow
  • Don't start thinking of what to say before they have finished/asked for your input. you may miss something. by the same token, if asked, allow a short pause before a response to give the impression that you've thought carefully about a response.
  • Body language. Face the person you are talking to and try to avoid folding your arms too often. This can give the impression that you are closed off.

Warnings

  • Never assume that what worked for you will work for everyone else as well.
  • Never try to fit in your biographical account and "been-there-done-that" experiences into what the speaker is saying. It is better to keep quiet, even if you have had the same problem a year ago and you know how to work your way out. If you listen well, it is quite possible that your suggestions and experience will be solicited later on.
  • If you find yourself formulating a response before the other person has finished speaking, you are not listening.
  • The more confident you are in your own idea, the more you should be willing to suspend that point of view for the moment.
  • If a person pauses as if trying to think of the right word, don't jump in with a word of your own. Some people are careful about their choice of words. It doesn't mean they need help. Finishing someone's thought is rude and disruptive.