Communication begins with the ears.
Listening is perhaps the most pervasive activity of everyday life. Research shows we spend nearly half our day engaged in listening-related activities: having conversations, attending meetings or classes, consuming media, and listening to music. Listening is essential for learning, to advance your career, and to make better relationships with the people around you.
Improving your listening is the #1 thing you can do to communicate better.
You may feel that you’re a decent listener – good for you! However, research also shows people overestimate their listening skills. The odds are you think you’re a good listener, but you’re probably fooling yourself.
The good news is that listening is a skill you can always improve.
Good listening is demanding. Listening doesn’t just happen.
We listen for many different reasons: to develop relationships, for enjoyment, to comprehend information, to be empathic, and to critically analyze problems.
The diversity of these examples illustrates that listening isn’t an on/off switch. Rather, listening is a set of behaviors on a continuum.
Not Listening At All <————> Engaged, Active Listening
At any given moment in a conversation, we fall somewhere on this continuum. It’s almost always the case that communication improves when your behaviors lean towards being actively-engaged. All of these behaviors are involved in good listening:
As you can see, listening is quite complex. You need to do many things well to be a good listener.
Many obstacles can get in the way of good listening. These deterrents detract from and compromise your listening abilities.
To figure out your obstacles, you have to think about your own behaviors. Pay attention to how you listen and how others listen. You can learn to listen better from observation and self-reflection.
I tend to think I’m a pretty good listener but I also try to be aware of where I fall short. I’ve self-identified at least 3 things that negatively impact my abilities to listen.
Your barriers to listening are surely different than mine.
Maybe being tired or having a headache makes you space out. Maybe you are easily distracted or preoccupied with something else in your life. Maybe you have a tough time listening when you strongly disagree with what someone is saying. Intense emotional responses can make listening difficult. Maybe you bore easily or come to conclusions too quickly.
Maybe you listen competitively as if conversations are things to be won. You listen only to exploit errors in reasoning or logic. Perhaps you dominate conversations in uncomfortable ways.
Maybe you have listening anxiety — an inability to process and interpret messages all at once. This can happen when you’re overwhelmed by new information or when having feelings of being judged.
Listening has many obstacles.
So how can you improve your own listening? That’s a highly individual question. The first step is to take an inventory of your own deterrents. Pick one or two to focus on improving. Two skills we can almost all stand to work on are refraining from waiting to talk and trying to give good nonverbal input.
It is a common affliction when communicating, that many people wait to respond instead of listening to understand. Being a good listener requires more than just waiting to talk. Listening is about comprehending and understanding what the person opposite you is saying. If you catch yourself thinking about what you’re going to say next when the other person is still speaking, you probably need to pause and refocus. Ask yourself, “What are they trying to “get across?”
Good listening doesn’t mean only sitting quietly. Listening need not be silent. You can say things to show you’re engaged. You might ask, “Have you thought about this?” “Are you worried about that?” “How did that go?” These responses show you were paying attention and trying to comprehend.
Body language — what we often call “nonverbal communication” can be subtle, but quite powerful. Eye contact, nodding, brow furrowing, leaning in, pointing, and shifting your body tells people how much — or little — you value a conversation.
Mirroring is simple listening strategy. Be your own reflection of the behavior you see across from you. Mirroring someone else’s behavior helps you read the other person and focus on them. When the other person sees you are engaged and responding like they would, they are more likely to trust you. People are quicker to trust when they see something of themselves in you.
Good listening amplifies communication just as a microphone captures and amplifies a singer’s voice. Good listeners view themselves as partners in conversation making their effort to have the other person be heard. Good listeners process, react, and respond. Good listeners ask questions that drive a conversation forward. Good listeners remember their own way of seeing things may not be the best. They keep an open mind and remain curious.
There are many behaviors you can engage in to listen better. Listening better is the easiest thing you can do to improve your communication. Start communicating better with your ears.