Listening is one of the most underutilized tools for improving our relationships be they with those we know or strangers we hope to connect with. With two ears and only one mouth, nature seems to have given us a clue to what is important.
Even when I learned listening was so important, I did little to improve it and continued to steamroll others in conversation.
It continued to negatively effect my interactions, and finally I had enough. I decided to spend some time understanding what I needed to do to be a better listener. I picked up the book How to Speak how to Listen by Mortimer J. Adler, spent time researching listening, and began to practice improving. Here is what I found.
1. Listening is an Active Habit
“Listening, like reading, is primarily an activity of the mind, not of the ear or the eye. When the mind is not actively involved in the process, it should be called hearing, not listening; seeing, not reading.” -Adler.
As you focus using your mind to listen to the speaker, you will need to keep your mental energies on their words.
It is important to find a way to maintain focus and keep wandering thoughts and other distractions from allowing you to truly listen and understand. Try using paper and pen to jot down ideas so you don’t forget. Meditation can help too (see number 7).
2. Stop Interrupting
It was not until I was doing an interview for an article, that I realized how quickly interruptions can ruin a good conversation. As I listened to the interview’s recording to find quotes, I had the painful experience of hearing my own voice amplified. The moment the speaker was finishing an incredible thought, I interrupted them! Again, and again, this happened, each interruption invoking an annoyance in the speaker’s voice. The recording stopped, and I was left quoteless.
After I cut back on interruptions I found something amazing happening. Not only was I getting a stronger understanding of what the speaker was saying, but they would continue on and share lots more valuable knowledge.
3. How to find the speaker’s meaning
What are they really saying? What is its meaning?
“The listener must somehow penetrate through the words used to the thought that lies behind them.” – Adler
What are they not saying?
As a part of deeper listening, working to understand what the speaker is leaving out can help you better grasp what they are saying and formulate questions to fill in the gaps.
What is the goal and point of their conversation?
Thinking through their point of the overall conversation can give you a broad mental map to understand how the present conversation fits in to the whole. Doing this helps you see the meaning of stories and examples and allow you to remain motivated to hear them out, even when they get rather droll.
You can be benefited by making use of your eyes. Look at their face, their posture, their hands, what are they visually saying. Listen to the tone of their voice.
- What are they expressing on their face?
- Where are their eyes looking?
- Where is their body facing?
- Does their face match their words?
- Does their tone match their words?
This can be helpful to better understand the emotions behind the speaker’s words, to be able to see what they are trying to say, and when they are challenged to share their words.
5. Eye contact
Eye contact is important for both the speaker and the listener in a conversation. Aside from it being polite, it’s useful for the listener. When you show the speaker you are listening they may be more willing to speak.
This is something you can relatively quickly improve. With each person who speaks with you, take a moment to give them active eye contact. To get in the habit of this, make note of the speaker’s eye color when they are speaking. Just be sure to not let it distract you from what they are saying!
6. Try Pure Listening
Try pure listening. You can do this together with a friend. As they speak, listen, and only listen. Any thought that pops in your mind, set it to the side and keep listening. Continue this until the other person has finished speaking. Take a moment to pause and recollect what they said, and then formulate the response
Why it works: In pure form, you can start to see how conversations too often become two people speaking in parallel, rarely actually listening to what the other said. Listening rarely occurs.
Friend A: “So this one time we went camping and the sky was getting dark. Just as my dad had closed the pickup truck bed, I …”
Friend B: In his mind, he may already be thinking of camping, an evening, his dad, a pickup truck, or any tangent memory these visuals may have invoked. He is only half listening what comes next. Likely preparing his story to tell, he is missing the rest of Friend A’s story.
When doing a pure listening exercise, you quickly become aware of your mind wandering, and have to actively bring it back to listening, paying attention and focus on understanding what the speaker is saying.
After 3-5 back-and-forths you can start to feel the ability to focus improve. You may also realize a more solid conversation.
7. Meditation can help
Meditation is useful in strengthening your ability to focus. Check out this meditation breathing exercise (YouTube link) to get started. Or pick up a book on mediation.(link)
Like writing, speaking, and reading, improving your listening skills takes practice. Never be afraid to ask for feedback on your listening ability from friends. Continue to actively focus on improving your listening skills and you can realize a great long term benefit.