Tips for Becoming a Better Listener
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“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” - Ernest Hemingway
Active listening is a soft skill; therefore, it can be built, like any other ability we learn. If that’s true, why aren’t more people good at this? Because listening is hard and implies a series of other soft skills, such as visual and nonverbal communication, reading body language, adaptability, critical observation, patience, and social skills.
Moreover, active listening requires empathy and the willingness to understand what others want to communicate. It’s about being genuinely interested in the person in front of you and caring about who they are and how they feel.
I started learning about active listening when I was studying journalism, and I still haven’t mastered this skill to the level I hope to achieve. But I’m improving with a lot of practice.
Here are three tips I’ve discovered while reading on this topic and working with people. I know they work because I use them often during interviews, Zoom calls, and online networking events.
1. Take Notes
Taking notes during a conversation can help you stay focused on the topic and keep up with its flow without getting bored. That’s because the act of taking notes forces you to understand what the other is saying so you can summarize the speech.
If you’re doing this for work, your notes play a double role. Not only do they help you remain connected to the topic, but they also become a way to communicate to the other person that you’re interested in what they have to say. It lends them confidence and encourages them to continue talking.
Sure, it’s not always possible to take notes, especially when the conversation doesn’t happen in a professional environment. However, you can still build the habit of paying attention to what’s said by taking notes while listening to podcasts, participating in webinars, or watching YouTube videos.
The more notes you take, the easier it becomes to stay concentrated on a topic for longer. You can start with short 3-to-5-minute videos and build your skill gradually until you can easily remain focused from start to finish during a one-hour webinar.
As you build this habit, you’ll see how listening becomes easier at work and during personal conversations with friends and family members. You’ll start paying attention to specific words and phrases in the speech and even details like the tone of voice, inflections, and body language.
2. Ask Questions
Questions support dialogue and guide conversation. However, this technique is tricky because you need to understand what the other is saying in order to ask the best questions, and you ask questions to understand better what the other is saying. If you don’t pay attention, you risk asking questions out of context.
I’ve learned to ask the right questions at the right time, not as much by reading about it as actively participating in conversations and practicing the skill. I’ve also watched many interviews and listened to podcasts to see how others accomplish this.
To get there, I had to overcome a limiting belief. Like many other people out there, I was terrified by the idea of asking questions during a conversation. I had to constantly remind myself that “The only stupid question is the question that is never asked.” It sounds like a clichè, but there’s some truth in this. Asking the other to repeat something that you might have misunderstood is proof that your interest is genuine.
I still use phrases like, “let me see if I got this right” or “correct me if I didn’t get it right” to soften the question, but I’m not afraid to look stupid anymore.
3. Visualize the Conversation
Visualizing the conversation is one of my favorite ways to stay focused and actively listen to what the other is saying. As they talk, I imagine the life situation described. Simply put, I create a short movie in my mind to facilitate understanding.
I find this helpful because it enables me to quickly realize when crucial details are missing, and I can ask better questions to make sure I have everything necessary to see the bigger picture. I’m sure it works for me because I’m a visual learner — I need to see information to process it.
The good news is, more than 65% of us are visual learners, so there’s a high chance you can use the same technique, too. Use your imagination to recreate the story in your mind, and you’ll see how easy it becomes to understand what the other is saying.
All three tips require practice. If you would like to become a better listener, you must join conversations and allow others to speak, even when you disagree with what they’re saying. With a bit of self-discipline, you’ll learn when it’s time to debate and when it’s best to nod and ask another question.