How to Listen Effectively
“To say that a person feels listened to means a lot more than just their ideas get heard. It's a sign of respect. It makes people feel valued.”
— Deborah Tannen, author and professor of linguistics, Georgetown University
Listening is a skill that plays an important role in our personal and professional lives. Listening is not just hearing someone out. Really hearing what a person is saying (active listening) is a good way to build relationships, understand and help others, and potentially resolve issues.
How listening can work for us
In this busy world, people often share only when they want to talk about something that is important to them. Listening is a way to show them that we respect and care about them enough to hear what they have to say without interruption. When someone is expressing something confidential and deeply personal, they are demonstrating that they trust us.
Some people talk because they need to vent, or express their grief or frustration. When we really listen, we gain a better understanding of who they are. We might also be able to give some words of encouragement or offer helpful suggestions after hearing them out. Listening can also be the first step to reconciliation in broken relationships.
Listening can play a key role in situations such as job interviews. A job applicant, for example, can listen intently to a recruiter and discern what the recruiter is really looking for. The job applicant can use that information to demonstrate that he or she is truly listening to the recruiter by responding appropriately to questions, and making relevant comments about their skills and experience.
How to have great listening skills
Have an “active listening” state of mind: Before meeting the speaker, you need to focus on them and keep an open mind. Put any potential suggestions or comments you want to make in the back of your mind. That way you can concentrate fully on what the person saying. If possible, arrange the setting for the meeting to be in a place without distractions such as a ringing phone or cell phone, a messy desk, loud music, or interruptions by other people.
During a long-winded conversation, remember key phrases and concepts the speaker brings up so that you can reference them later.
Be aware of your body language and eye contact: Be alert but relaxed so that the speaker will feel at ease. Make good eye contact but look away now and then so that the speaker does not feel that they are being stared at.
Understand the pace of the conversation: Listening intently increases your ability to discern pauses that may be an opportunity to can ask a question or seek clarification. Active listening also helps you pick up on non-verbal communication and body language, such as the speaker’s tension or frustration about the topic.
Acknowledge what you are hearing: There are a number of ways that you can acknowledge that you are hearing and understanding the speaker such as an occasional “yes” or “uh huh” during a pause. Your body language can also express that you are listening to the speaker by a head nod, a facial expression showing concern or empathy, or leaning forward slightly in a chair.
Uses reflective listening: This method involves reflecting back what the speaker is saying, such as: “I am hearing you saying…,” or “You are identifying the problem as…” This method confirms that you have heard and understood what the speaker is saying. This also confirms that you are truly paying attention and are serious about trying to find solutions to issues that have been raised. Reflective listening can also acknowledge the speaker’s feelings by saying things such as “That must have been a difficult thing to go through,” “You must be excited about this,” or “You seem to need some help with that.”
Be ready for what may come next: The speaker is usually looking for something such as a sympathetic ear, a discussion about a problem, help with certain tasks, or potential solutions to certain problems. An active listener is mentally prepared for whatever challenge may come up, such as criticism or being asked for possible solutions to problems. Be ready to help with encouraging words and suggestions, if needed.
Seven action steps to improving listening skills
- Watch your body language: Keep steady eye contact without staring the person down, which can make the person uncomfortable. Make sure your body language conveys that you are open and receptive to what the person is staying.
- Be fully present: Give the speaker your full attention and do not allow yourself to be distracted. If possible, pick a place to meet that has few or no distractions or background noise. Mute your cell phone and put it away. The speaker may ask for feedback, so be prepared to ask for clarification or to respond with recommendations or offers of help.
- Keep an open mind: Try not to think about comments or suggestions you want to make while the person is talking. When your mind is in a whirl or your personal biases kick in, you cannot listen properly and may miss some important information. Do not jump to conclusions about the situation or offer suggestions unless the speaker asks for them.
- Empathize: When a person is describing their frustration with something, such as technology that does not work properly, show empathy. If you are the go-to person for IT problems, it is tempting to be impatient and roll your eyes when dealing with those who are not tech-savvy. Conversations like this may require even more active listening, patience with their ignorance, and understanding. Put yourself in their shoes and remember the last time you tore your hair out in frustration because of technical issues.
- Watch for non-verbal cues: Practice interpreting non-verbal cues by the speaker such as facial expressions or changes in the speaker’s tone as they are speaking.
- Do not interrupt or interject solutions before hearing the speaker out: Watch for a pause in the speaker’s talk if you need to make a comment or ask a question. The pause may also be a good to offer words of encouragement, if needed. If the person gets long-winded, you can use a non-verbal gesture such as raising your hand, or a quick “excuse me” to indicate that you want to respond to what they are saying. The speaker will show through body language, a pause, or a request for input that they are ready to hear what you want to say.
- Practicing reflective listening: Reflecting what a speaker is saying assures the speaker that you are listening carefully and care about their feelings. It also shows that you understand what they have told you.
Effective listening is a skill that requires some effort on our part to understand other people and learn about their challenges and needs. Active listening can help workers solve problems on the job, heal broken relationships, and gives listeners the opportunity to help others.