How to be a Better Communicator (a.k.a. Listener)

So often, we actually stop listening before the speaker has even finished sharing their thoughts. We’re always a few steps ahead; predicting, planning our next steps, preparing a response, or allowing our minds to wander to other (perhaps more pressing) thoughts.

Learning to be a good listener is fundamental to becoming a good communicator. Research suggests that people who are good at listening tend to be more successful in their careers and experience better relationships. Yet most people are not very good at listening. Why is that?

Well for one thing, we don’t really practice listening and we definitely don’t emphasize it in education (have you ever seen a class on listening?). While listening is the very first communication skill we learn as children, parents and teachers tend to prioritize the development of speaking, reading, and writing skills over listening.

This may have something to do with culture as our society tends to value the ability to articulate our individual thoughts and ideas more than openness toward or acceptance of ideas that are different from our own.

Listening it something I’ve been studying for years. In fact, my undergraduate degree is in Organizational Communication and I’ve taught an interpersonal skills course several times. So in preparation for today’s post, I even dusted off a couple of my old textbooks to brush up a bit. 🙂

Based on my own experiences and the opinions of a few experts, here are some of the best practices for becoming better listeners:

Listen beyond just hearing. Hearing is the physical process of sound entering our ears and being processed by the brain. We hear many things throughout the day, but we only choose to listen to some of those messages. Listening, on the other hand, is a voluntary process that requires our attention and energy.

Think back to your college classes – did you tend to retain information better when you were actively paying attention and taking notes, or when you were distracted – perhaps talking with a neighbor or doodling in your notebook? We all know the answer to this question – listening takes intention and it requires our full attention (so put your phone down!).

Actually pay attention to what’s being said. The most common issue we face in effective listening is our failure to block out distractions. It tends to be harder than we might think given all of the stimuli that surrounds us. Of course our phones are a major distraction, but things like background noise or even personal stress can act to deter us from giving our full attention as well. We all know what it feels like when someone is distracted from listening to us and it’s not fun, so let’s commit to minimizing barriers when possible.

Barriers may be environmental (like background noise or televisions on the wall or people walking by or phone notifications popping up), physiological (like when our minds start to wander or when we have a cold which impacts our ability to hear well), or psychological (like when we have a poor attitude about what’s being said or we disagree with the message).

Again, it takes intention to block out distractions so be thoughtful about where you meet people or even the time of day. For instance, trying to have a conversation when we’re hungry or tired could impact our ability to focus. When possible, meet in a quiet space. Try to minimize distractions by, perhaps, closing the door or playing soft background music without words.

You know when you are most alert and productive during your day, so consider scheduling meetings for times of the day when you feel the best. For me, this tends to be mid-morning and mid-afternoon (which is when I schedule almost all of my meetings).

Don’t anticipate what’s next. A lot of us have this bad habit of anticipating what someone is going to say next, so we stop listening. Or worse, we start strategizing what we’re going to say in response, before they’re even done talking. Stop anticipating what’s next and actually listen with an open mind to what is being said.

Sometimes, people will surprise us. Sometimes, we will be wrong. And sometimes, we may actually learn something new or change the way we think as a result of what we hear. There is no shame in taking a second to process what we’ve heard and to gather our thoughts in order to prepare a response – so there’s no need to rush. And sometime, silence is a good thing because every now and then, the speaker will open up without any prompting at all.

Slow down and really listen.

Be aware of the whole message. Between 75% and 90% of the information we gather from others is attained through nonverbal communication. This means that while the actual words are incredibly important, understanding the meaning beyond those words is also necessary.

Be observant of things like body language, inflection, and tone which provide clues to the real meaning of the message.  Is the speaker being sarcastic? Are they communicating frustration? Are they attempting to deflect blame or guilt by minimizing a request?

If you’re not sure, ask! Simply asking can provide us with the additional information that tells us the true meaning of the message. Beyond this, it shows that we are really listening and engaging in the conversation at hand. Try something like, “Are you sure you’re okay? I hear you saying that you are, but your body language and tone seem to say that you’re not actually okay.” Sometimes a caring and empathetic voice is all a person needs to open up a little.

Evaluate what you hear with open-mindedness.  Part of listening is not simply accepting the words we hear, but considering how they resonate with what we know from our own life experiences. Recognize that we all have different experiences which have shaped our individual perceptions of the world.

While you may not agree with someone’s message (which is completely okay!), keep in mind that your goal should be to connect with the speaker’s underlying emotion or attitude about the content. Even if you don’t agree with the speaker’s point, you can likely understand their emotion. Something as simple as, “I can see why that would be frustrating,” can provide a sense of support and understanding.

Keep in mind also that the speaker may not want or expect you to respond to what they’re saying with a solution. Sometimes, people just need to feel like they’re being heard, like they have a voice. A good way to check this is to simply ask, “How can I help or support you?” or “Do you want to strategize possible solutions?”

Provide feedback with acceptance and positivity. In responding, it is best to avoid challenging an individual’s intelligence or honesty. Such approaches are personal attacks and will almost certainly be met defensively. Instead, good feedback should be immediate, honest, and supportive.

We can show that we are engaged and responsive by making eye contact, showing the appropriate facial expressions (like smiling or frowning), gesturing with our head movements (like nodding), providing touch when appropriate (like touching one’s arm to provide comfort), or giving verbal affirmations (like simply encouraging the speaker to continue or checking to ensure we understand their meaning). Paraphrasing can also demonstrate empathetic listening.

Being empathetic or supportive doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t disagree with the speaker’s message if we don’t agree – quite the contrary. In working with students, there were a few instances in which I disagreed with their line of thinking (e.g., what’s fair or not fair). However, we have the ability to articulate our perspective without attacking the speaker.

One good approach might be looking at facts or evidence. In my experiences, this generally involved looking at things like how many days a student had missed and/or how many assignments they hadn’t submitted. This could involve providing specific personal examples or citing current (reliable) news articles. Whatever the case, focus on the content of the message itself, not the speaker.

Final Thoughts

Being intentional in listening starts with thoughtful planning to minimize distractions and to actually be prepared to listen.

It takes work to listen and understand the real meaning of the message. If you’re not sure that you’re really getting it – just ask! It’s much more authentic than pretending to understand or just tuning out altogether.

Empathy is an important component to listening. Focus on connecting with the emotion of the speaker and look for opportunities to be supportive when appropriate.

References

Arntson, A. (2017). Most of us are bad listeners – Here are some small ways to fix that. Verily. Retrieved December 4, 2018, from https://verilymag.com/2017/12/listening-skills-relationship-communication-active-constructive-responding

Fritz, S., Brown, F. W., Lunde, J. P., & Banset, E. A. (2005). Interpersonal skills for leadership (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Henderson, N. (2018). How to be a better listener: Fixing 5 common bad habits. Welltuned. Retrieved December 4, 2018, from http://bcbstwelltuned.com/2018/07/26/how-to-be-a-better-listener-fixing-5-common-bad-habits/

Trenholm, S. (2008). Thinking through communication: An introduction to the study of human communication (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Wong, K. (2017). How to be an excellent (or at least pretty good) listener. The Cut. Retrieved December 4, 2018, from https://www.thecut.com/2017/12/how-to-be-a-better-listener.html

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

  1. Boy screaming, Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
  2. Fashion’s untold stories, Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash
  3. Coffee talks, Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash
  4. Leaning on each other, Photo by Shamim Nakhaei on Unsplash