Core Listening Skills
Listening is a bedrock conversation skill. It's easy to explain its benefits by mentioning the consequences of not doing it well:
- If you're a poor listener you'll miss a lot of the information that's given to you in a conversation. You won't have as much to go off when deciding what to say next, and your interactions won't flow as well. Plus, you may hurt someone's feelings when you ask them about something they've already told you, or miss hearing about a party because you were tuned out when everyone was talking about it.
- When you don't listen well it leaves other people feeling frustrated and disrespected, because they don't feel heard and understood. Listening is more than parking yourself in front of someone and letting them make sounds at you. People don't need to feel all their conversation partners are deeply absorbed by everything they say, but they do want a sense that the other person gives at least somewhat of a crap. Even if you just want to tell a corny joke to a co-worker, it doesn't feel good when they're obviously not listening. If you're not a great listener you can come across as spacey, uncaring, or self-absorbed. People may hang out with you casually, but feel they can't have a more serious, substantial conversation with you.
Being able to pay attention to people and take in what they're saying, while not coming off as totally disengaged, is mandatory, bare minimum stuff. When people talk of "listening skills" sometimes what they're referring to is listening in a more active, focused, empathetic way. It's when you really try to understand where someone is coming from, show your interest, and read between the lines of what's being said. You'd use that if someone was telling you about their problems, or you were having a deep philosophical discussion, trying to see their perspective during a disagreement, or taking part in tough negotiations.
This second type of listening is more mentally taxing and takes practice to master, but has a lot of benefits. It helps you connect with people. It helps them feel accepted and supported. It can make arguments go more smoothly. Also, if you tend to be anxious and stuck in your head during conversations, making an effort to listen forces your attention outside yourself, and away from your nervous thoughts.
While listening skills are very important, I think their significance is still oversold at times. Some self-help sources imply that good listeners are rare, and that people appreciate nothing more than someone who truly listens to them. In my experience that's an exaggeration. Good listeners aren't that scarce, and being able to listen to people doesn't guarantee they'll love you, or that you'll easily be able to get through any conversation.
Basic listening skills
With a little practice it's not that hard to become a half-decent listener.
It sounds obvious, but one of the keys to listening properly is to want to do it. When people are poor listeners they usually aren't that way on purpose. They unconsciously come into the conversation with another agenda or their own issues, which overrides their listening skills. Like they may be too focused on what they want to talk about, or with trying to impress everyone. When you speak with people make a deliberate decision to try to listen well. Try to...
- ...give the other person space say what they want to say, even if you're not entranced by every last word or their delivery isn't the best (e.g., they're rambling a bit and aren't sure what their point is)
- ...place equal importance on each person's goals for the conversation
- ...avoid any of the poor listening behaviors I'll cover below
- ...put yourself in the other person's shoes and take on their perspective
- ...seriously consider what they're saying, not just hear it and not give it a second thought
- ...be non-judgmental
Of course, those won't all apply in every situation. If your friend is telling you about a video game she played the other day you probably don't have to worry about being open-minded and accepting.
In regards to placing equal importance on each person's conversation goals, what I mean is don't only focus on what you want. If the other person has a light story they want to tell, or a problem they want to discuss, then be a listener for them so they can do that. But that's not to say you have to completely put your own needs aside. You don't always have to be in Listener Mode, just that when other people are speaking you should make an effort to listen well. Your own needs are valid too. If you've got a story of your own you're dying to share you can work that in at an appropriate time. If you're talking to a known long-winded monopoliser, you don't have to be trapped forever by your listener duties. You may decide to politely cut them off once they've told one anecdote and are about to launch into another one.
Adjust the level of your listening depending on the context. If a friend is telling you about a funny YouTube clip his brother just sent him you don't need to try to commune with his very soul. Just let him say what he wants to say and don't interrupt. A mistake some people make when they first learn about listening skills is they overdo it and act like overly intense, super-fascinated therapists all the time.
This is a big part of appearing engaged:
- Make good eye contact with the speaker
- Face your body toward them
- Lean slightly forward
- Turn away from any distractions
- Have an appropriate expression on your face, depending on what they're telling you and what they hope to convey, e.g., concerned and understanding as they go over a problem, interested and amused as they tell you about their odd co-worker
- Nod and make little 'uh huh' or 'Mm hm' noises to show you're taking everything in, and to encourage them to continue
Do each of these with a light touch. Again, the idea is to appear interested, not act like a caricature of a therapist. Also, adjust this basic template based on the circumstances. If you're lounging on a couch and watching reality TV with a buddy while they casually tell you about something weird that happened at work, you don't need to full-on face and lean into them. You could show you're listening by turning your head slightly toward them and going 'uh huh' and 'yeah' every so often. Having a mindset of wanting to listen is still important. Even if you nail all the non-verbals, people will usually be able to tell if you're just going through the motions.
- Make appropriate responses to certain things they say, for example, going, "Oh wow, that sucks..." in a compassionate voice when they tell you about a sad childhood memory, or laughing as they get to the amusing part in a story.
- Show an interest in what they're saying - Ask for clarification if you don't understand a point, ask thoughtful follow-up questions to get more details, show you really want to explore the topic, and help them think of things they never thought of.
- Make responses that show you understood and heard what they've said - Agreeing they're going through a tough time, making a sympathetic murmur, sharing an experience of your own which shows you're on the same page, asking a thoughtful follow-up question that shows you've been paying attention, and so on.
- If someone shared a lot with you, it may be appropriate to sum up what they told you, to show you've taken it all in. Paraphrase if you do this. Don't robotically parrot back what they told you. Use this technique sparingly. Doing it too much is another thing that can make you look like a fake cartoon therapist.
- If the speaker seems to want something from the interaction, like your thoughts on how to deal with an issue with their parents, don't be too in a hurry to give it to them. Let them finish saying what they need to say first. Give them room to explore things on their own.
Avoiding being a poor listener
A lot of being a good listener is avoiding the habits and behaviors that make you a poor one. Here are some general poor listening behaviors:
- Talking so much that you're hardly ever in the listener role to begin with
- Not seeming to pay attention to the other person / seeming like you'd rather be doing something else - Looking around the room, checking your phone every two seconds, not turning away from the TV
- Having bored or distracted body language
- Interrupting / cutting them off
- Coming across like you're just waiting for your turn to speak
- Being too eager to fill silences, not giving them space to formulate their thoughts
- Rushing them to finish speaking
- Finishing their sentences
- Cutting in with a premature summary of what you think they're going to say
- Interrupting to respond to what you assume they're going to say, without letting them finish
- Abruptly changing the subject right after they're done speaking, without responding to what they said
- Giving an unsatisfying token response to what they said, then switching to a totally different topic
This article is about day to day listening skills, so I'll only briefly cover the next two sub-topics. Along with the above, the following are poor listening behaviors when someone has come to you for help or support:
- Staying in a jokey mood, even though they'd prefer the interaction to become more serious
- Being judgmental and critical toward what they've told you ("You let that upset you? That's all she said? I think you're being oversensitive.")
- Being too quick to cut them off and give them advice, solutions, or a lecture
- Turning the conversation back toward yourself ("Yeah, yeah, that's tough, but you should hear what my mom did to me when I was a kid...")
- Being too quick to go off on broad, philosophical tangents ("Yep, capitalist societies can be cold to the working class...")
Again, in addition to everything above, in the context of an argument or disagreement these can also peg you as a poor listener:
- Seeming like you're not considering the other person's views (e.g., you have a look on your face that shows you've already made up your mind and are dismissing everything they're telling you)
- Being too quick to cut them off to disagree and defend yourself
Non-malicious reasons people can seem to be bad listeners
People can be poor listeners because they're self-centered, sure they're right, or not interested in the subject. Though as you were reading the poor listening behaviors above you may have thought, "Well that doesn't always happen because the person is a terrible listener, what about...?" It's not always cut and dry. Here are some more excusable reasons people can seem to be bad listeners:
- They're feeling shy and nervous and are too focused on their insecurities to pay attention.
- They have a naturally spacey, distractible personality.
- They're in an energetic, overeager, talkative mood.
- They're legitimately distracted by stresses in their life.
- They misjudged the mood of the interaction (e.g., they figured it was light and jokey, while the speaker thought they were having a more serious discussion).
- They thought the speaker had said all they needed to about a topic, and that it was okay to change the subject.
- They didn't misjudge anything, and the speaker changed the tone of the conversation in their mind, without any warning.
- The environment is really loud, distracting, or both.
You can't always get it right. Sometimes there will be a misunderstanding and you'll be seen as a bad listener without meaning to. However, for the most part if you know you're prone to any of the issues above, working on them will indirectly help you become a better listener.