Photo: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash
“You’re such a good listener!” That wasn’t the response I was expecting when my roommate wanted to discuss a problem she was facing. At the time, I thought I was a bad listener.
The woman I was seeing towards the end of my time in Australia used to get annoyed with me constantly because I always forgot what she had said. It’s true, I did.
Once the relationship petered out, I realised the reason I forgot what she was saying was that I zoned out. I wasn’t devoting as much attention to what she was saying that I should have. It’s no wonder the relationship didn’t last!
Somewhere in between the end of that relationship and the above conversation, I had learnt how to become a better listener. It seems simple enough, but it’s easy to forget. If you want to be a good listener, you have to actually listen.
It was only when I started teaching English that I realised just how important listening is. My job required that I listen out for mistakes students were making and address any concerns they had about learning the language.
If I didn’t actively listen to what they said, I wouldn’t be in a job much longer. This experience taught me the value of being a good listener. Not only will it improve your relationships with other people, but it will also make you a much less self-centred person.
My experience teaching meant I was able to listen to my roommate’s concerns instead of zoning out and offering unneeded advice. Sometimes, just having someone listen to your concerns and take them seriously is all we want.
Here are 4 simple tips that will make you a better listener.
The first tip is the simplest, talk less. If you’re talking, you’re not listening. It’s all too common to dominate the conversation without realising it. I know people like this, and it can be frustrating when you’re trying to get a word in but you can’t.
When one person dominates the conversation, it ceases to be a conversation. It’s one person being talked at. Granted, some conversations are meant to be one-sided, when someone is unloading what’s on their mind, but ordinary conversations are supposed to be 50–50.
We all make the mistake of thinking that we need to be heard in a conversation, but listening is more important. If you’re blindly changing the topic and ignoring what the other person has to say, the conversation will soon come to a halt.
Take a step back and listen to what the other person is saying. Ask them questions related to what they have just said. Engage with them constructively, instead of just trying to make yourself heard.
A mistake a lot of us make in conversations is not asking someone to clarify their thoughts for fear of appearing dumb. Instead, this shows the other person that you are listening and they will likely appreciate that you cared enough about what they were saying to ask for it to be explained.
Listening is an art, but mastering it starts by acknowledging that to listen you need to moderate how much you talk.
Recognise changes in tone and body language
Whenever we’re talking, we’re not just expressing ourselves in our words, but also with our body language and tone of delivery.
Listening is not just the art of hearing what people have to say, but recognising their body language as they say it. Consider the following:
- Do they cross their arms the longer the conversation goes on?
- Are they looking over their shoulder?
- Does their pitch rise when they talk about certain topics?
All of these clues hint at someone’s mental state while they’re speaking. If someone appears tense while they’re speaking, the best way to make them feel less tense is not to reassure them, but to appear relaxed and non-confrontational.
A good listener will recognise these cues and respond accordingly. It’s counter-intuitive to think that we should pay attention to body language as well as what someone is saying, but if we don’t, we run the risk of jeopardising the conversation.
Recognising that someone might be uncomfortable or angry through non-verbal cues is a surefire way to become a better listener.
Acknowledge what isn’t said
A date I went on when I was living in Barcelona sticks out in my mind. We went to a bar and had a few drinks, talking about a variety of topics. One topic which my date brought up constantly was her ex.
She brought him up in relation to how she used to spend her time when she wasn’t working and about her time at university. This didn’t confuse me as such, it was obvious from how much she talked about him she still had feelings for him.
No, it was what she didn’t say that bothered me.
She didn’t touch upon what she was looking for in a partner only what her old partner brought to the table. Nor was there any acknowledgement that she was interested in a relationship. She talked a lot about her internship, but not about what she wanted to after it was over.
It’s instructive what people do say and don’t say on a first date, but this is also true whenever you meet someone for the first time, or if you haven’t seen a friend in a long-time. Often they will mention one topic such as their work, but neglect another one such as the state of their relationships.
Maybe they’ve left out the topic on purpose, or it slipped their mind. Either way, recognising this allows us to listen to what they are saying and ask follow up questions to clarify.
This is useful when someone is trying to sell you something but you’re unsure if it’s a good deal. Often what’s not said is more important than what is. Listening for this and responding as necessary will improve your conservation for the better.
Be 100% engaged with the other person
Last year, my friend and I were making our way back to England after driving around Europe for 6 months. To cut down on driving time, we decided to catch a ferry from Lithuania to Sweden.
After a bumpy journey with not much sleep, we rolled off the ferry and into a customs checkpoint before we were allowed into Sweden. One of the guards came over and began to chat with my friend who was driving about where we were going and what we were doing.
At one point during the brief conversation, my friend blurted out that there was a group of guys who had been drinking behind and he might want to go and have a look. As soon as the words had come out of his mouth, the guard whipped a breathalyser out of his pocket and tested my friend.
I feel like facepalming after he said that!
The fatal mistake my friend made was not being fully engaged with what the guard was saying. He had answered his questions but his mind was on something else and he felt the need to bring it up even though the guard had not mentioned drinking and it was ten in the morning!
If he had listened and responded to the guard’s questions without feeling the need to advise him on how to do his job, we would have been out of the checkpoint in minutes. Instead, we were stuck there longer than we needed to be.
To be a good listener you have to actively listen to what others are saying and not just try and direct the conversation to what you want to talk about. My friend’s desire to add input, which was unnecessary in the context, caused the conversation to take a sharp left turn.
Engaging fully with what the other person is saying allows you to rationally decide whether it’s a good idea to add input, or just listen and ask a follow-up question.
You’ll find your conversations flow much better and last much longer once you make this subtle change.