Are you a good listener? It’s easy to imagine that we’re all rockstars when it comes to this seemingly no-brainer skill. However, unless you have the courage to survey the people around you, you may never know the true status of your listening skills. After all, who wants to hear that they talk more than listen to the people around them?
To answer this question honestly, I actually did ask.
Parenting confession time. So, it turns out, I’m not the best listener. Okay I’m terrible. The people closest to me didn’t hesitate when I asked them to rank my listening skills on a scale of 1 to 10. While I thought I could confidently strut in around an 8 or 9, the truth is, I’m about a 4.
Wait. What? Me? No way.
There’s not a person on the planet who sets out to be a poor listener. Poor listening is a gradual, slow-growing deficit that eventually can become an invisible anchor grounding many relationships. In fact, if you dissect some common relationship problems — especially those between parents and teenagers — poor listening may be at the core. And, chances are, if there’s poor listening going on at in your family, you can bet it’s spilling over into your friendships and work relationships. Ouch. How’s that for a reality check, right? I know. I’m right there with you.
It’s painful to face the truth about a weakness. Even more challenging, is committing to do the work to change it. But I’m doing that. And, in just a short time, I can see some definite changes. For instance, I’m learning a lot more because I’m talking a lot less — the math is pretty easy. I’m getting the full picture instead of just half of it (always helpful), and my responses are well developed and better received. Chances of a disagreement or misunderstanding has drastically reduced. I discovered that real listening means putting most of my energy into focusing on the person in front of me, rather than formulating my own half-informed responses.
The internal red flag that I’m not listening is this: If I feel the urge to speak while another person is talking, I’m not truly listening and I quickly refocus. Often, I’m so busy constructing a response or even daydreaming, that I miss much of what is being said. I don’t even want to admit to all the times I’ve caught myself daydreaming while someone else is talking. (Wow. I know. How rude, right?).
Because of the many benefits to listening, I’ve set a pretty lofty goal: To become a master listener. So far, it’s fun seeing the changes but I’m nowhere near where I need to be in rebuilding the behaviors that got me here. Lasting change is going to take some time. I do know the things I’m passionately committed to — parenting, marriage, relationships, even my career as a writer — are all inherently dependent on listening well.
Here’s just a little of what I’ve learned. If you’re feeling gutsy and having an exceptionally good day, go ahead and ask the people around you to rank your listening skills. Then, either smile and high-five yourself on your awesome score or join me in putting on your work boots and making some changes.
8 Ways to Become a Better Listener:
- Prepare to listen well. Listening takes more than a set of ears. Listening well requires your whole body. That means making eye contact, leaning forward, and eliminating distractions while another person is talking. That takes putting down your phone, muting the TV, turning away from your computer screen, and paying attention to the speaker’s body language.
- Understand hearing vs. listening. Hearing is easy because it’s an ability like tasting or touching. We can hear a song but not absorb or understand the lyrics. Hearing is experiencing the sound waves via your ears, but listening requires receiving the sound waves and understanding them. Listening is focusing and understanding both the words and emotions of the person speaking. Hearing is an ability; listening is a skill.
- Practice listening well. Have fun with this. Create opportunities to improve your listening. Reshape your questions to give your listening muscle a workout. Instead of asking, “What’s the matter?” ask instead, “How are your feeling about XX?” Instead of saying “You need to fill out some job applications,” ask, “How are you planning to approach your job hunt?” Instead of offering your opinion on an issue, catch yourself and ask, “What do you think about XX.” Also, ask for feedback. When you are done talking, ask the other person if they felt like you listened and heard what they were saying. Until you become the Yoda of listening, this tip will be tough but worth it.
- Clarify with questions. Without interrupting (and if applicable to the conversation), ask questions to make it clear that you understand what is being said and implied by the speaker. Listening well requires both your mind and your heart. Make sure you not only hear but also sense the speaker’s point of view and ideas on an issue. Asking questions requires pausing, reflecting, and repeating back a point to make sure you understand it. This validates to the person speaking that you heard their words and their intent.
- Get the full story. We’ve taught our kids not to barge in (interrupt) and grab things but often, as adults when talking with others, this is exactly what we do. We interrupt the person speaking, grab one or two sentences and run with them, and jump to judgement-based conclusions before we’ve heard the full story. We do it with our kids and with other adults. How can we expect to respond intelligently without understanding all the facts? It would be like writing a check for groceries with half of the items still in your cart. Interrupting tells the person in front of you “I’m more important than you,” or “I don’t care what you think.” Keep an open mind when listening. Catch yourself if you begin to pass judgment, form a response, or interrupt.
- Don’t be a diversion. If you do this, you are annoying a lot of people. For instance, if Joe is recounting a rock climbing excursion he had with Beth and the heroic measures he had concoct when a sudden storm rolled in, don’t interrupt him mid-sentence by asking what Beth has up to lately. Sounds farfetched? Such random, thoughtless questions rise up and wreck other people’s stories more than any of us would like to admit. Good listeners are quiet, engaged, and attentive to the speaker’s cues. Good listeners allow others to start and finish their stories.
- Withhold advice. This tip is a biggie, especially when listening to teenagers. If someone is talking about a problem, and you have the privilege of listening, don’t offer up solutions unless you’re asked. Often people talking through a tough situation just need to be heard. Good listeners do not interrupt with problem solving or unsolicited advice. And, if you just can’t hold your tongue, ask permission before offering advice. Ask, “Would you like to hear a suggestion?”
- Be an engaged listener. In addition to putting down your phone and making eye contact, good listeners are engaged and appropriately responsive. Make sure you affirm the speaker without interrupting. You can do this with a simple nod indicating empathy or understanding, or you can offer a periodic “hmmm” or “uh huh.” Or give an occasional, “You must have been shocked!” or “I can see that you are excited about that.”
Becoming a better listener sounds like a lot of work, right? If you haven’t been a great listener, yes, righting the ship will feel a bit overwhelming at first. However, as you develop your skills, listening well will become second nature. The benefits are clear: Listening to a child builds his or her self-esteem, independence, and with problem-solving skills. It also strengthens (even saves) marriages and careers. So have fun with honing your skills and enjoy the rewards listening brings.
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