Exploring The Art Of Becoming an Effective Listener

All effective communication starts with effective listening.

Why are we not good listeners?

Most of us know what it takes to be good listeners, but often we only listen when we want to or feel that we have to. In some cases, we may only listen to certain people and not to others.

Being an effective listener means having to listen even when you do not want to. If you do not learn to listen to other people, then it is unlikely that they will listen to you when you have something to say.

Consider some situations where we might not always be good listeners.

  • In what ways, if any, are you sometimes a bad listener?
  • How do you think being a bad listener could impact your ability to communicate with others?
  • If you were an effective listener, how do you think that would help you form stronger connections with other people?

Listen without interrupting

Perhaps we interrupt because we are pressed for time (or impatient in general), which leads to us finishing other people’s sentences and suggesting words when they hesitate or pause. Or perhaps we arrogantly assume that we know what they are going to say because we have heard it all before.

Unfortunately, offering solutions too early – or signalling that our mind is already made up – shuts down other people and makes them less likely to speak up in future. It could also lead to trouble because we do not obtain the information they are trying to convey.

Occasionally, when under the constraints of time, you may need to interrupt someone to speed a conversation towards a fitting conclusion. This is a delicate matter, though, and needs to be handled appropriately.

In situations like this, let the person know from the get-go that you do not have much time to talk and prompt them to outline the main points of their discussion. If they do go off on a tangent, redirect them back on course by interrupting and asking for a summary to keep the conversation flowing productively. 

Being an effective listener requires that you listen without interrupting.

  • How do you feel when you get interrupted?
  • And what have been the negative consequences when you or someone else interrupted another person in the past?
  • How might things turn out differently if we simply let other people speak without interrupting them?
  • And knowing this, what do you think we should do whenever we get the urge to interrupt a conversation?

Signal that you are listening

Everyone has telltale signs that indicate they are not listening: the blank stare, the impatient frown, the body agitation, or the tendency to keep looking away. To compensate, you must create better non-verbal signals to show that you ARE listening. One of the best ways to do this is to just nod and smile. This is your way of acknowledging to the other person that they have been heard.

Another problem many of us have when it comes to listening is failing to signal that we are listening in the first place.

  • What are your telltale signs that indicate you aren’t listening?
  • And what could you do to better show that you are listening?

Ask clarifying questions

Great conversations are built on great questions. That is why one of the best ways to become an effective listener is to ask lots of questions when other people speak. For example, you could ask probing questions to dig deeper into an issue or ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand what they mean.

Related to the idea of asking questions is the idea of summarising or paraphrasing what someone has said before moving on to the next topic or question. This simply means that you should use your own words to repeat back what someone has said to you so that they know you fully understand the points they have expressed.

The best listeners are often the people who ask the best questions.

  • If you were to go back to your last conversation, what questions would you choose to ask?
  • What result do you think this would have had?
  • And what questions will you ask in your next conversation?

Listen to people you dislike

While it is easy to listen to people we like, it is a lot harder listening to those we do not. In some cases, we might have problems with people who disagree with us or people who have different tastes. In other cases, it might just be due to the setting, the time or whether they can offer us something we need.

To be a great listener you have to listen to everyone – even the people you might not like. Focus on what the person is saying rather than on the person, and shift attention away from your prejudices of what their agendas or motives might be. Your role is just to pay attention and take in what they are trying to convey. Opinions can come afterwards.

Adopt the same approach when you are on the receiving end of unwanted criticism. Let the other person have their say while you quietly absorb and understand what they are suggesting. Remain composed and do not act defensively. Even if their accusations are blatantly unwarranted, let them speak first before you react with a calm and eloquent response.

Being an effective listener means listening to everyone, even people you dislike.

  • Who are the people you like listening to? Why do you feel this way?
  • And which people do you struggle to listen to?
  • Why do you think there is a difference?
  • And what lessons can you apply from the ‘easy’ group so that you can better listen to the ‘difficult’ group too?

Listening challenges

There are also times when listening to people we like can be tough. Fortunately, there are useful ways that you can respond. For example, when the speaker is:

  • Erratic – help focus the discussion and keep it on track by requesting succinct summaries of what they are trying to say
  • Chatty (but you are in a hurry!) – ask direct and focused questions and ignore small talk
  • Offloading an issue – empathise by rewording what they have said but without volunteering any solutions
  • A persistent moaner – before any discussion takes place, ask them to write down their complaints and any possible resolutions
  • A gossiper – spur them on to tackle their issues with others face-to-face rather than talking behind someone’s back, or neutrally reword what they have said without expressing any opinions yourself.

Consider how to respond to specific listening challenges.

  • Which of these listening challenges have you faced lately?
  • How did you respond? And what was the result?
  • And what can you do the next time you are faced with this listening challenge?

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