Listening seems like a simple-enough skill, but why is it so difficult to master? The short answer: your brain gets in the way! Your brain is evolutionarily wired to look for shortcuts, or heuristics, to quickly process information based on your past experiences so that you can make a judgement or decision. This is incredibly useful in some scenarios, but conversations are not one of them! Using heuristics when you should actually be listening may cause you to miss important pieces of information or make incorrect assumptions. Worst of all, it can make the speaker feel like you’re not actually listening. The result can be devastating for our relationships.
On the other hand, if you are perceived as a good listener, it will pay dividends in your relationships and career. Good listeners have high-quality relationships with others because they make other people feel heard and valued. Also, they tend to make better, more informed decisions because they take multiple perspectives into account. In fact, a study found that listening affects 40% of a leader’s performance! Hone your listening skills to improve your relationships with the following tips:
- Focus on the speaker. This tip may sound basic, but if you are used to multi-tasking, getting your mind to be still and focus only on the conversation can be a challenge. During a conversation, catch yourself. Are you thinking of what you’re going to say next? Try your best not to have thoughts running in the background or to make judgments in advance of the speaker finishing what they have to say.
- Notice nonverbals — yours and theirs! Experts maintain that nonverbal cues can account for 70-93% of communication. Pay attention to not just the words the speaker says, but also their posture, facial expressions, and tone of voice. For example, if they appear to be nervous, make them feel comfortable by making eye contact and putting anything away that might distract you. Using your nonverbal cues like nodding shows them that you are invested in what they have to say and will increase trust.
- Clarify their message. Once they are done speaking, summarize what you’ve heard before offering a reply or asking another question. If you’re not clear, ask clarifying questions in a supportive, sincere tone. Above all, do not be critical or judgmental when asking clarifying questions. As this HBS article points out, whether or not you’re perceived as a good listener depends on how supportive and engaged you appear to be during the conversation. Show them that you’re there to listen, not to correct errors or make judgments.
- Validate their feelings. Emotional validation is a fundamental human need. If someone is emotional, don’t dismiss their feelings. Instead, empathize with them and don’t rush to come up with a solution. If you do have ideas to help, ask them first if they are interested in hearing them. You might think you’re being helpful by filling the silence with a solution or with advice, but sometimes the speaker just needs to vent and feel heard.
- Ask for feedback. You may think that you’re great at listening, but what really matters is how you’re perceived by others. Get honest feedback from others at work or at home about your listening skills and ask for ideas on how you can improve.
Listening isn’t always easy. We’re wired to assess situations quickly and make judgments, which is the opposite of what we should be doing when we are actively listening to someone else! Although challenging, being a good listener is key to having meaningful relationships with others and building trust. When you are tuned in to the speaker, their message, and their emotions, you will make them feel supported and heard, which is a crucial part of being perceived as a good listener. Try these tips during your next conversation and reap the rewards!