Listening. It seems like a pretty simple concept, easy to apply, and definitely something you want others to do for you. It is essential in the workplace, in interpersonal relationships, in families and couples, in classrooms…the applications are endless. We listen without even thinking, beginning from a young age when others read to us or tell us stories. Our ears perk up at a song we like. We tune out repetitive commercials. And yet, “You’re not listening” seems almost like a cliché at this point. Why is listening so important? And how can we learn to do it more effectively? Listen up.
The Five Stages
Listening is deceptively complicated. You may think it’s a passive activity that just sort of happens. In reality, there are five stages to listening – and two different types of listening even beyond that. The website Boundless explains the different steps:
Only the first part of that process is (arguably) involuntary – the rest happen when we decide to interact with whatever we are hearing.
Listening Versus Active Listening
Beyond the five stages are two different types of listening: passive and active. This is the difference between hearing what is happening around you, and tuning in to it in order to respond or react. Active listening can also be broken down into three different levels. When talking to another person who wants you to listen, any of the three may be appropriate – depending on what they need from you. Your boss or coworker may need you to listen to instructions and follow them later. A partner may need you to listen to the pros and cons of a decision they are trying to make, and assist them in making it. Your child may just need to know they are heard and appreciated while bemoaning a difficult day at school. All three of these situations require active listening, with different actions as follow-ups.
Listening actively can make tasks easier and strengthen relationships. It helps you become a trusted leader and partner, and helps you understand tasks. Active listening also helps you make decisions and avoid errors in the future. Listening is essential to solving problems and communicating effectively. Making someone feel heard, whether in the workplace or in your personal life, can dramatically change the way in which you relate to them.
Becoming a Better Listener
Author Henrik Edberg shared his thoughts on how to become a better listener on the Positivity Blog. He shared ideas for before, during, and after a conversation to help you become a more engaged and effective participant, even if you never utter a word. Outside of the conversation itself, Edberg recommends practicing mindfulness or remaining in the moment. Focusing on the here and now helps us to stay present without getting distracted and drifting off. It also allows us to really experience life as it happens rather than thinking about the past or future, meaning that we will be more engaged with events as they unfold – and conversations as they progress. Edberg also recommends exercising, or at the very least making sure you get fresh air daily. “Few things make it so hard to follow along in a conversation as a tired and foggy head. Two things that can keep that energy and mental clarity up are to open a window or to take a walk outside to get both some exercise and some fresh air.”
Before the conversation begins, Edberg recommends you be honest with yourself and whoever you are talking to about what you can contribute. If the other person needs you to listen to them vent about trouble at work, but you just lost your job or had a horrible week, you should let them know up front that you may not be the right person for the conversation. This works on two levels – it lets the other person know that you’re thinking of them, and want to be honest with them, but it is also a form of self-care. If you know that you need to take care of yourself or give yourself a break, and you afford yourself that break, you are setting a good example for the other person. You are leading by example.
You can also do this in more practical ways – letting the other person know if you have a time constraint, and/or will be available at a different time. If the situation is an emergency, then letting the other person know that you’ll be there for them as soon as you can might also help deescalate the immediacy of the situation.
The best way to dedicate yourself to listening during the conversation is to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Edberg recommends that you start by putting away, or turning off, your smartphone and other devices. Another good step to take is maintaining eye contact, which shows that you are fully engaged with the person talking. This is where some of your mindfulness training will come in handy, as it will allow you to listen to the person rather than drift off into your grocery list, or thinking about what movie to go see over the weekend.
Both during and after the conversation, you should respond in meaningful ways. Ask questions if you are confused, or want to know what the other person needs from you. Having a conversation where the other person wants to vent, versus one where the other person is looking for advice, is going to dramatically change the way you should engage. Asking questions during the conversation is one way to do this, but rehashing or summarizing what you heard afterwards can be another helpful tact. Let the other person know that you are going to repeat what you think the conversation was about, and allow them to interrupt or correct you if you’ve misunderstood something. This helps the conversation both solidify in your mind, and helps clear up anything that was miscommunicated.
Listening Without Responding
Now that you have some tips for listening, you should know one of the most important distinctions while listening: listening to understand rather than listening to respond. Think back to some conversations you’ve had with others. While you’re listening to their points or explanations, are you forming a response in your mind? Are you trying to formulate your comeback to an argument you don’t agree with? Are you already thinking of a story you can tell that relates to the one the speaker is telling, or how you can share your own expertise on the subject being discussed? This kind of thinking splits your focus and takes you out of the conversation. While you are forming your response, you may miss an important or game-changing point the speaker is making.
In his article “How to Truly Listen to Someone, Instead of Listening to Respond,” Paul O’Brien dives in to some of the differences between these two types of listening. O’Brien describes a networking event that he attended, where all attendees made two minute presentations about themselves and their company: “…if I actually listened to this and asked them questions, I not only learned more about them and their company, but when they had finished talking, they were suddenly interested in me and my company and they were ready to listen themselves” (O’Brien). Listening without worrying about what YOU have to contribute shows the person that you care about what they are saying. It also helps you understand how they communicate better, since you will likely have questions once they are done. By continuing the conversation by clarifying what they said and focusing on their contribution, the other person is more likely to afford you the same attention when it is your turn to speak. This raises the chance that, if you do offer advice or an anecdote of your own, it will be much more appreciated.
Listening is not something we can just allow to happen. In order to listen successfully, we need to be mindful of the conversation, and remain fully focused and engaged until it is over. Doing this shows the person you’re talking to that what they have to say really matters to you. It’s alright to ask questions or try and clarify a talking point, but you make sure you do not interrupt in order to do so. Active listening can make it easier for you to learn from or participate in conversations with others. It can strengthen relationships by developing communication skills, and can make it more likely that the other person is willing to listen to you in the future.
Edberg, Henrik. “How to Become a Better Listener: 10 Simple Tips.” Positivity Blog, http://www.positivityblog.com/better-listener/ Web. 24 Apr. 2017.
“The Importance of Listening.” Boundless. https://www.boundless.com/communications/textbooks/boundless-communications-textbook/learning-to-listen-and-helping-others-do-the-same-5/understanding-listening-29/the-importance-of-listening-132-8285/ Web. 24 Apr. 2017.
Paul O’Brien. “How to Truly Listen to Someone, Instead of Listening to Respond.” Business 2 Community. http://www.business2community.com/communications/truly-listen-someone-instead-listening-respond-01023899#gacTygbqg2Kjr4Dy.97 2 Oct. 2014. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.
“5 Reasons Why Listening Is Important.” Mag For Women. N.p., 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.