Seven Ways to Be a Better Listener

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Back in the day, I had a friend who was, well … average looking. Definitely not ugly, but hardly Helen of Troy. Yet boys fell for her left, right, and center—like cockroaches after a generous spray of Raid.

The reason? She had an incredible gift. 

No matter what you had to say, or how drop-dead boring your topic of conversation, she listened with such rapt and wide-eyed attention that you felt like a CNN news anchor reporting a late-breaking news story. Every single time.

Everyone loves a good listener. But there are more reasons to develop the skill of listening than just to win hearts or popularity contests.

Listening heals hurts and builds bridges. It gives us the ability to understand and empathize, to view the world from more than just our own (often shortsighted) eyes. It can bring us wisdom over and above mere intelligence. But most importantly, it allows us to give the people around us the gifts they crave most … time, attention, and a sense of worth.

As it turns out, there’s more to good listening than just keeping quiet and allowing someone to speak—though that in itself is a laudable feat. Effective listening is actually a combination of two key communication skills: listening and verifying.

Even when we’ve miraculously managed to hear a person’s entire message (without zoning out or interrupting), we often interpret it wrong—according to our own understanding, experience, or prejudice. 

As an effective listener, your goal is hear and absorb what another has to say … in exactly the way they mean it to be understood. Only then can you respond appropriately. 

Believe me, this is much easier read than done, so here are a few helpful tips:

1. Give the speaker your full attention.
Stop talking and remove all distractions. Turn off the TV, your phone, or computer. Watch your posture and body language. The way you look at the speaker, or the way you stand or sit, makes a huge difference. The right listening posture not only eliminates distractions and enhances our ability to concentrate, it communicates that we are listening openly and attentively, and puts the other person at ease.

2. Be patient.
Not everyone is a gifted (or even logical) speaker. Some people take longer to find the right word, to make a point or clarify an issue. Others are too fraught by emotion to get their message across properly. If necessary, ask the speaker to say more, give an example, or explain further. It will help him/her speak more precisely and it will help you hear and understand more accurately. 

3. Keep your emotions in check.
If what someone is saying creates an emotional response in you, make an extra effort to listen carefully, with attention to the intent and full meaning of the words. When we’re angry, frightened or upset, we often miss critical parts of what is being said.

4. Hold your fire.
Don’t jump to conclusions, or launch immediately into an opinion, defense, criticism, or argument. A good listener doesn’t judge (or react) until comprehension is complete. If you respond in a way that makes the other person defensive, even if you “win” the argument, you may lose something far more valuable. 

5. If you don’t understand, CLARIFY.
Don’t wait. Don’t ignore your potential misunderstanding and risk letting it grow into an even larger misunderstanding. Some people are afraid to ask questions because it might make them look stupid. But the truth is, it’s the NOT asking—and then taking the wrong action or reaction later—that makes people doubt our intelligence.

6. Even if you think you understand, VERIFY.
Never assume you got the message right (especially when you’re talking to someone of the opposite sex). Pause, think about what was said, and then get confirmation that your understanding is correct. Paraphrase the message, and ask “Is this what you meant?” or “Am I understanding this right?”

7. Empathize.
Take a moment to stand in the other person’s shoes, to look at the situation from his/her point of view … especially when you’re being told something personal or painful, or something you intensely disagree with. 

Too often, we expect people to feel or to react to situations in a certain way because that’s how we would. But everyone is different. Effective listening helps us to realize that—and react to others’ needs in a more enlightened and appropriate manner.

Effective listening—taking time to listen and get a message right—is really all about empathy. The more shoes you are able to successfully stand in within your lifetime, the less mystifying you’ll find your life and relationships to be.


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