How To Be A Better Listener

Alex Boswell

A life skill that everyone should practice

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Have you ever heard that adage:

“You’ve got two ears and one mouth, that means you gotta listen twice as much as you speak”

At least that’s the way I’ve heard it, you might have heard variations of it at some point in your life, but it still rings true. Listening to other people is a skill like any other, to some, it comes naturally, and to others, it takes a bit of practice. You might think that it’s easy, that you’ve just got to not speak when someone else is talking. I felt that way until someone close to me rightly pointed out that I wasn’t listening to them, I was only hearing them.

Throughout my life, I have had some pretty poor listening skills. While I don’t recall a time where I’ve outright ignored someone on purpose(which is not a great way of listening), I’ve fallen foul to these:

Pretending to listen

This can come in a few forms, such as using a phone while someone else is trying to talk to you. Though the way I’ve personally done this is by only focussing on how I want to respond to the person or what I want to say in the conversation and using words like “mhmm”, “yeah”, “sure” to rush the other person so that I could talk.

Selective listening

This one is a bit subtle. It’s different from selective hearing, which is what I a specialist thought I ‘had’ as a kid when my mum thought I was deaf (go figure). Generally, selective listening is when in conversation, you only pick up on what you want to hear and nothing else. As I said, I’ve been guilty of this one in an argument or two.

Autobiographical listening

I’m massively guilty of this one. I still struggle with checking myself sometimes. Technically I’m probably doing it right now. Autobiographical listening is when you listen to another person’s experience of something, be that a good or a bad one, and then you respond with your own experience of said thing. I thought this was helpful, in terms of being able to draw advice from my own experiences when in reality it just diminishes the other person’s circumstances or makes theirs seem not as important as yours. Also, sometimes advice isn’t needed or wanted, so the point becomes moot.

So I was a douche and sucked at listening to other people, what does good listening even look like? And how do I improve?

Two Principles of Good Listening

Okay, so there are lots of sound ‘principles’ out there in the world for good listening, but you try to remember the top 10 when you’re in your next conversation. It would be pretty hard, especially if you were coming from a position of poor ability like I was.

It all boils down to two major ideas:

#1 Understanding

If you care about what the other person is saying, you should be trying to understand them. This applies both literally and emotionally. A great way to practice this is by listening to another person and then repeating what they said back to them starting with something like “If I understand you correctly…” or “What I’m hearing is…” and asking if what you said was right. Done well, this helps to validate the other person and lets them know that someone else has listened to them. Often this is all people actually want, an empathetic ear. However, if the other person is seeking advice, then principle two comes in handy.

#2 Diagnosis Must Precede Prescription

Assuming you’ve applied the above in the conversation already, you should have an idea of what the other person is experiencing. Though instead of doing what I did (getting all autobiographical), ask the other person open-ended questions about it. This way you’ll get to the root of the issue a lot quicker and reliably than if you just made assumptions about the best way to help them. You’ll often find that other people come up with their solutions to things when they talk about it out loud to someone else. Usually, as a bonus, their result turns out far better than anything you could have suggested because they know their situation better than anyone else.

In essence, if you recognized yourself in the first part of this post, chances are your listening skills aren’t up to par. Despair not! If you apply the two main principles (though I won’t begrudge you if you looked at others) to your conversations after reading this, I promise that they will become a lot more meaningful and helpful.

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Writing about human experiences and life lessons everyone should know about, but don't.

Los Angeles, CA

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