Many of us were taught how to speak effectively, but I’m not sure if we are ever taught how to listen effectively. And yet, every good conversation begins with good listening. Is listening a natural skill or can it be learned? We can all identify a good listener—that go-to person when we need advice, need to understand a situation better, or just want someone to hear us. We think of listening as a passive activity, but effective or active listening takes time, practice, and dedication. Active listening is a communication technique. It requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond to, and remember what is being said—not something most of us are good at. Being a good listener is an invaluable skill that can help us to see the world through the eyes of others. Here are seven tips for effective active listening.4
This one is tough right out of the gate. Our lives are filled with clutter, to-do lists, and problems to solve. Being present for someone else requires leaving these distractions at the door, setting them aside for attention later.
We listen through filters formed by our past experiences, biases, and the stories we have about the speaker. These filters often distort our objectivity and prevent empathetic listening. We first need to recognize our filters and then disarm them.
We often start formulating a response before the speaker has finished, but listening requires our full attention. Too often we make the mistake of believing that the speaker wants a response. That little voice in our head likes to evaluate what we are hearing, but the speaker may just want us to listen.
Listening goes beyond spoken words. Pay attention to the speaker’s tone, cadence, body language, posture, and facial expressions. Visuals can amplify and clarify what is being said.
Speakers want you to understand what they’re saying. If something they say is unclear to you, inquire for more information. Ask open-ended questions when you need more information to better understand the “why” in addition to the “what.”
Making regular eye contact lets the speaker know you’re attentive and engaged, rather than bored or distracted. Be aware of your own nonverbal cues too: leaning forward, nodding your head, and smiling all send the signal that you’re listening.
Some people think that when they’re listening, they should find a quick and easy solution to the person’s problem. Instead, focus on absorbing everything that’s being said. Wait for a request before you offer help.
If you’re a problem solver like me, you’ll likely have a hard time with tip 7—and I’m still working on 1–6 too. We spend more time listening than speaking, and yet many of us aren’t good at either. Listening takes time, practice, and dedication. A lot can be gained by learning when to stay quiet. Silence can be uncomfortable, which is why we often try to fill it. Good listeners are comfortable with the discomfort of silence.