Isn’t it frustrating when our dog picks up a scent and runs in the opposite direction of our desperate calls? But did you know, they aren’t choosing to ignore us, as they can’t actually hear us? Their ears are switched off. Under these circumstances, their brain diverts the hearing power to the other senses. Dogs have an excuse not to listen, but we humans do not.
Think of the people in your life. Who do you feel most seen by? I suspect the people you thought of, all have strong listening skills. I bet you feel relevant and understood in their presence. There is a misconception that those with excellent communication skills are talkative. In actual fact, it is their listening skills that set them apart. The good news is we can all easily improve our listening skills. And by doing so we become a better friend, partner and employee.
We are going to discuss 5 methods to become a better listener. If you apply these consistently, they will eventually become an automatic part of your conversation. Put these in place and you may well become a listening guru.
Developing (and maintaining) happy relationships is a crucial step towards long-term happiness. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. This topic is covered in more detail in the biggest guide on how to be happy in the section Social Happiness.
What’s the difference between hearing and listening?
So how do we differentiate between hearing and listening? Hearing is taking in sounds. Whilst listening is processing words and making sense of them.
We can not listen intently whilst carrying out another task. When I’m typing furiously and my partner starts talking, I can hear him, but I’m not processing his words. I’m not giving him my undivided attention. Sometimes I don’t even look at him. How dismissive is this!
I can hear the sounds of his words, but I’m not giving him my consideration. Psychologists have long differentiated between hearing and listening. Listening gives us a greater understanding of the world around us.
5 simple tips to make you a better listener
OK, I admit I used to be an awful listener. About a decade ago, my attention span was haphazard and I was an awful listener. Whilst my active listening skills were strong, I had poor talk time awareness. I didn’t ask insightful questions and I was easily distracted. Is it any wonder my relationships suffered?
I’m not an expert now, but I am working on it. Let me share a few tricks that have helped me become a better listener.
1. Get active with your listening
I don’t mean you have to run or cycle whilst chatting with someone! This scientific study shows those who converse with others with active listening skills, feel more understood and satisfied with their conversations. This is compared with those whose engagement is with people who don’t portray active listening skills.
Do you use active listening skills?
Active listening skills are vital to show you are being attentive. This is both taking in, and processing what is being said. Active listening skills are the first step in showing another person that they have your undivided attention.
So what are active listening skills? Well, they include physical motions, such as head nodding, eye contact, and facial expressions. They require appropriate engagement such as laughter if a joke is made. Sometimes it is helpful to paraphrase something the speaker has said such as “so my understanding of what you have just said is that hearing and listening are two entirely different things.”
2. Minimize interruptions
Seriously – put your phone on silent!
Have you ever spent time with a friend who seemed more interested in their phone than they did in you? How did it make you feel? Don’t be the person to do this to others. By all means, if you are expecting an important call, warn your friend. But otherwise, give them your undivided attention.
It is important to minimize interruptions. Perhaps your friend is going through a separation. Maybe a sibling is grieving a pet. Set aside time and space, free from interruptions, to listen to them. This is how you can be a more supportive person.
When I desperately needed to talk to a friend recently, she brought her toddler with her. Let’s just say this wasn’t conducive to a peaceful space. The interruptions blocked the conversation and as we parted ways I felt worse than I did before we met up.
3. Be aware of your talk time
Sometimes I can get super excited in the company of certain people. Some people energize me and give me verbal diarrhea. This is something I am working on.
Do not hog the conversation. Your voice may well be lovely, but it’s time to focus on the wonder of your ears. Learn to embrace a natural pause in a conversation. Those more talkative of us often feel the urge to jump in and fill this space. But learn to step back, recognize this is an opportunity for others to step in and contribute to the conversation. Silence does not always need to be filled.
We must allow the more introverted amongst us to get a word in edgeways.
When you are with friends, be aware of your talk time. If you are talking more than others, recognize this and bring others into the conversation. Ask questions, stop talking and listen.
(This is also a good way to practice your self-awareness skills!)
4. Ask better questions
People who ask questions, particularly follow-up questions, are liked better by their conversation partners.
Ask open questions. These require more than a 1-word answer and encourage the other person to talk. For instance, instead of asking a friend “is your separation making you feel rubbish?” change this to “how is your separation making you feel?” Can you see how open questions encourage conversation flow?
From here, you can funnel your questions deeper with follow-up questions, based on the answers you receive.
Do you know what question I hate? “How are you?”
Personally, I feel this question is bland and stifling. I normally answer “fine” regardless of how I’m feeling. You may think otherwise, but I suspect most people are indifferent to this question. I also get the feeling this question is asked out of habit and obligation. Or perhaps it shows a lack of conversation creativity.
So how about replacing this question with something a bit more engaging. Spice things up a little.
I ask my friends a myriad of questions instead of the old “how are you?”
- What color is your world?
- What animal best reflects you today?
- What plant do you identify with today?
- What song best describes your mood?
Grab a pen and paper and jot down other questions.
When we ask better questions, we get more detailed information back. When we use our listening skills effectively we are able to react to incoming information. This promotes better conversations and deepens our human connections.
5. Follow up
Carry on being an active listener even when you are away from others.
Don’t be an “out of sight out of mind” person. For instance, your friend may have told you about an upcoming job interview. Maybe they have an important sports event, which they have been training hard for. Or perhaps they have a doctor’s appointment they are worried about. Call them or message them to wish them luck. Maybe get in touch afterward to ask how it went. Let them know you are there for them and show that you are a good friend.
It may be that there is nothing in particular to follow up on. But next time you see your friend, be sure to reference conversations you had the previous time you met up. “You said Bruno was a bit poorly last time I saw you, is he better now?”
This highlights that you were listening to them and remembered what was said. Following up on conversations helps gel relationships and makes the other person feel valued.
We all get distracted from time to time. Sometimes life events get in the way of our ability to pay attention and listen to others. None of us are perfect. But, we can all work towards becoming a better listener.
Remember, when we improve our listening skills we set ourselves up for success in our relationships and in the workplace. Don’t forget our 5 simple steps:
- dust off your active listening skills
- create an environment with minimum interruptions
- be aware of your talktime
- ask better questions
- follow up on conversations
When you learn to be a better listener, you will hear things you may never have heard before. This brings a magical richness into your life. Enjoy those deeper connections.
Are you a good listener, or do you feel like you could improve? Or do you want to share a tip that has helped you become a better listener? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!