4 Ways To Become A Better Listener
Authors: Timothy Rudge and Maria Shipley
It’s amazing that we live in a day where we are so empowered to voice our opinions; It’s a privilege we should never take lightly.
Not only that, but there is an abundance of platforms to communicate those opinions. We are able to instantly tell thousands of people what we think or how we experience the world. It’s also clear that in many ways we have never been so disconnected, so unheard, and so numb to the struggle of others.
Having an opinion in itself does not connect us. Often it seems that as the voices of some grow louder, the voices of others have been silenced.
Humanity seeks to be heard.
We need connection, we need conversation.
Yet real conversation is painfully uncommon.
A conversation that gives us a deeper understanding of the people around us.
A conversation that forgets the past and seeks to build bridges between us. We need a conversation that sees differences as a way to grow richer in understanding. A conversation like that requires listening.
Most of us were taught to listen as children; to listen twice and speak once. But it seems that as we leave childhood we become more concerned with being heard. More concerned with having a voice than knowing someone else’s story. We spend so much time convincing people to think the same way we do, instead of getting into someone else's skin to experience the world through their eyes. It’s foolishness to think that we have all the answers, and further still that someone wants to hear them all.
Becoming present with the person before us, and familiar with the pain of those around us requires letting go of our pride and embarking on the journey of becoming a good listener.
Join us on this journey.
Below are four practical ways we've found to become a better listener:
1. Eye Contact
Giving eye contact sounds pretty basic, but it is underrated and universally important in conversation. It is one of the strongest assurances to someone that you are listening. Breaking eye contact can demonstrate that you are no longer focused on the person and engaged with what they’re saying…even if you actually are.
One study concluded that the ideal balance in conversation is for the listener to maintain eye contact 70% of the time and the speaker 50%. The lessened amount for the speaker allows for unimpeded thinking, as maintaining eye contact can slow down your brain’s processing.
Ensuring that the breaks in your eye contact are intentional and don’t display distractedness (eg. letting your gaze wander) also communicates that you’re engaged.
A level of eye contact higher than 70% would probably be welcome in most conversations. Just think about the best listeners you know and how often they break their gaze from you when you are speaking - probably not a lot.
If you think it will be incredibly uncomfortable to increase your eye contact, just try it. Most of the time the speaker will take the opportunity to look away, feeling assured that they are being listened to.
2. Formulating Responses
Roy T. Bennett wrote “The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply.”
When someone is speaking the fundamental goal is to understand. The biggest blocker to understanding is when your focus is split with formulating what you want to say next.
Of course, it is nearly impossible to hold off all your thoughts and ideas whilst someone is speaking. But limiting this enables you to fully focus on, and consequently understand what somebody is saying. It also releases you to listen to what’s behind the words; to fully engage in who they are and what they are feeling.
Digest what they’re saying, pause and if need be, allow a short silence to think about your response. Deeper understanding and connection is more important than an instantaneous response.
3. Giving Input
This follows on from the last point. Light, casual conversations lend themselves to a back-and-forth exchange of thoughts and ideas, but when someone is sharing their heart, input should look different.
By limiting your input you give people the room to fully express what they have to say. Don’t be afraid of silence. At first, it can feel awkward, but it usually acts as an invitation for someone to share further and more deeply about their experience.
There is a place for good advice and empathetic responses of “I know how you feel, I had a similar situation...” but the critical thing is ensuring your motive is sharing for them and not for you. The place for such input is far less than people are actually practising in conversation.
4. Reflecting Back
Reflecting back is a widely known “active listening” tool, and is very helpful in building connection.
We don’t always understand 100% of what someone has said, especially if they are communicating something they are feeling or experiencing.
Reflecting back to them what you are understanding of what they are saying enables them to confirm that you understand their heart and allows any misunderstanding to be cleared up. It also makes the speaker feel like you really care about understanding what they have to say.
By saying very little but listening in this quality way the speaker very often finds themselves speaking out the very answers they may have needed that were inside of themselves all along but just needed someone to listen well, give them the encouragement, space and reflection back to discover those answers.
I hope these tools help you and together we can learn to listen today so that tomorrow we will be a more unified humanity.