How to improve your listening skills …

From birth to death, life is full of interactions with people. Vital to the quality of those interactions is our willingness and ability to listen to what others have to say, and that’s where many of our problems start. Many of us are terrible listeners!

The story is told about President Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. His complaint about these interactions was that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you, God bless you sir!” It wasn’t until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Unphased, the ambassador leaned in close and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming!”

There are various reasons why we listen to others: to obtain information, to understand, for enjoyment, or to learn. Each of these reasons can be enriched by our sharpening our capacity to listen well to others. To help us do that, here are several tips to enhance your personal listening skills:

Prepare in advance.
Before you meet with someone, prepare yourself to be a good listener:

  • Don’t create assumptions about what the person will say when you are together. Doing so can result in entertaining an entire fabricated conversation in your mind where you assume what the other person will say, complete with your feelings, responses, and judgments to what you have imagined. By the time you actually meet with the person, you’re ready to unload what you have to say about the imaginary conversation you had in your head, instead of the one you should have now that they are present.
  • Unless the meeting is intended to accomplish something specific, don’t create an agenda. Doing so may force the other person to talk about something they are uninterested in or uncomfortable discussing.
  • Do check your motives. If the only reason you want to meet with someone is for you to tell them something, then you have little motive to listen. A good listener has a genuine motive of wanting to listen to what another person has to say.
  • Do pray. Use the time prior to meeting with the other person to pray for them and yourself. Ask God to help you be a good listener and to be in the midst of your time together.

Make the moment about them.
Novel writer James Patterson once said, “I never miss a good chance to shut up.” When others are talking, that moment belongs to them, give it to them by ceasing to talk. Don’t attempt to multi-task while listening, that only distracts the speaker and conveys a lack of attention and interest on your part. Make them at ease, and then invite them to talk.

Appreciate the other person.
Listening does not always mean agreeing, but even when you don’t agree with someone, listen with respect. Find something of value about the other person that you can respect, and let that influence your willingness to listen to what they have to say.

Minimize distractions.
Turn off the television, mute or put away your cell phone, have someone watch the children, put the dog in the back yard — do what is necessary to eliminate or minimize distractions. This could also include setting the thermostat to a comfortable temperature and providing a comfortable place to sit together.

Don’t dilute what the other person has to say by judging what they look like.
Our eyes interact with others before our conversations ever start. What a person looks like can have nothing to do with what they have to say. If you make snap judgments about someone based on what they look like, you will often dilute what you hear with your pre-conceived visual perceptions.

Look interested.
There’s nothing that better demonstrates you’re interested in hearing what the other person has to say than by physically giving them your attention. Looking away, yawning, glancing at the clock, fidgeting, playing with a pen or paper clip, glancing at the television, checking your text messages, are just a few things that convey a lack of interest. Crossing your arms often conveys a feeling of guardedness. Show the other person they have your interest and attention by maintaining eye contact, turning your body toward them, and relaxing.

Concentrate on listening.
Hearing refers to the sounds you hear, while listening requires more than that, it requires focusing on what the other person has to say. Listening means paying attention not only to their story, but how it is told, their use of language and vocal tone, and how the other person uses their body. Thus, listening requires being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages. Listen for ideas, not just words. And listen patiently; don’t distract yourself by planning your response or “talking to yourself” while the other person is talking.

Don’t interrupt.
This is a general rule of thumb. There may be times where a very brief comment such as, “That’s hilarious! Go on …” or “What did she say?” or “What happened next?” or “What did you do?” is appropriate as part of your listening. Sometimes allowing for a little silence is a key part of listening; don’t assume a long pause is an invitation for you to jump in and talk. In general, don’t interrupt when the other person is talking. Listen!

Focus on content, not delivery.
Counting how many times someone touches their nose while they talk, or watching their hands fidget or feet shake can distract you from hearing what they are saying. Focus on the content of what they have to say.

Don’t jump into their story.
This is a primary way we muffle our listening and de-value what others have to say. Often when someone is telling a story, we can’t wait to jump in at the first opportunity to share how we’ve had the same kind of experience, the same kind of feeling, the same idea, etc. Their story is theirs, let them tell it without your comparing it and wanting to interrupt with your own story.

Demonstrate you are listening.
Provide subtle clues to the other person that convey you are listening, such as nodding your head, arching an eyebrow, smiling or other facial features, and the occasional word or sound of acknowledging you’re staying with what they have to say.

Listen with empathy.
Let the other person know through your expressions that you are empathizing with what they are saying. This can be done with appropriate facial expressions, and sometimes with brief and appropriate touch and words, but make sure these are done while you listen, rather than as an interruption.

Be aware of your own body language.
Glancing away, sighing, crossing your arms, frowning, and other expressions and actions indicate disinterest on your part to the speaker. Maintain eye contact and face the other person as they talk to you so that your body language conveys interest in what they have to say.

Don’t argue mentally.
Many people make the mistake of arguing mentally while another person is talking. In that case, you aren’t giving the other person your full attention, which often means you’ll misunderstand what they have to say. Wait until the person has fully shared what they have to say before making any evaluations.

Don’t jump to conclusions.
Partially into what someone has to say we can find ourselves predicting what they will say next. By jumping to conclusions we can tune out hearing what the other person is saying and generate inaccurate judgments. Save crafting any opinions or evaluations until after the other person has fully concluded with speaking.

When fitting, take notes.
Note-taking can be inappropriate in some personal settings, but it might be beneficial in others and can convey to the speaker what they have to say is important to you.

Ask questions.
Ask questions for anything you need clarification of. Ask open-ended questions to encourage the other person to continue with what they are talking about or to learn more about their subject matter.

Respond appropriately.
How you respond depends on the purpose of the interaction. If you’re having a serious discussion with your spouse or boss, you may want to practice reflective listening to ensure what you think you heard is actually what the other person said. If someone just wants you to listen to their woes, respond with empathy instead of trying to fix them or their problem; don’t offer solutions unless you know the other person wants you to offer them (or ask if they would like to hear your thoughts on the matter). Sometimes the best first response is to validate what the other person has shared with you, even if you don’t agree, such as, “I can understand how you can think that way, and I might feel the same way if I thought the same thing …”

Being listened to has a powerful effect on our relationships, and on our lives. During a study conducted in San Francisco, teen prostitutes were asked, “Is there anything you needed most and couldn’t get?” Their response, invariably preceded by sadness and tears was unanimous: “What I needed most was someone to listen to me. Someone who cared enough to listen to me.”

Do you care enough about others to listen to them?