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How to Listen

Develop Better Listening Skills


Listening is one of the most important skills you can have, and yet so many of us don't listen properly as we should. Listening is more than just sitting silently while someone else talks. It's actively participating in the conversation by encouraging the other speaker and fully absorbing what they are saying.

Are you a good listener? Many people could improve their ability to listen. Here are some ways to become a better listener.

Practice Silence When Someone Else Is Talking

How to Listen
Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The first step in listening is making sure you actually hear (fully) what your friend is saying, and you can't do that when you're talking at the same time they are. Cutting someone off verbally is often done in excitement, or to show that you can relate in a conversation. In other words, you're not trying to interrupt.

Still, watch for statements like this:

  • "Oh I know what you mean. I..."
  • "Are you serious? I would have..."
  • "I can relate. I just had this happen..."

While you might think these interjections help move the conversation along, they're probably making your friend feel as if they need to continually talk over you to be heard. What's more, if you're talking to an introvert, they'll need a moment to pause and think before continuing what they were going to say, and as a result you probably think they're done and will continue talking.

Nod to Encourage the Conversation Along

A better option to let your friend know you're interested in what they say is just to nod along from time to time. Be careful, though, as sometimes people do this and close their eyes or look away at the same time. You could miss some of their nonverbal clues when you do this.

Another hazard is that sometimes people nod along but then start thinking about something related that they could say. When you nod, make it quick and try to push away your thoughts until you fully absorb what your friend is saying.

Make Eye Contact

It's important to look directly at your friend, but don't stare so much you miss the other nonverbal clues your friend is giving off. Look with a relaxed eye, where you encourage them and focus on their eyes to let them know you're paying attention, but take in their body language as well.

For instance, it's important to note when your friend:

  • Furrows their brow.
  • Looks down with hesitation.
  • Smiles in a way that is not natural.
  • Rolls their eyes.

These clues can help you determine whether your friend is hesitating about telling you something, being sarcastic, or just kidding. What's more, you'll be able to get a better sense of what's going on in their lives when you look directly at them and let them talk.

Tune Out Background Noise

If you're easily distracted by background noises (laughter, glasses clinking, children crying), you might need to work extra hard to focus only on your friend. If necessary, ask your friend to repeat themselves. It's okay to tell them that you're trying to hear them out but the background noises are getting in the way. If you can't focus, try moving to another area.

Tuning out noises does take some practice. If you're used to eavesdropping on people's conversations then it will be that much more difficult to tune it out when you're trying to listen.

No Texting or Looking at Your Phone

When you're sitting in front of someone, they are the most important person in your world at that moment. Whoever is calling or texting can wait until you're done with your conversation. Mastering face-to-face conversation can help every area of your life, from your friendships to the working world. So it's important to give it your full attention. Don't try and multitask.

Make Sure Your Body Language Encourages Your Friend to Talk

Besides eye contact, you should make sure that your body language is such that your friend feels comfortable talking without feeling judged or pressed for time. Smile, unfold your arms, and make sure you're facing them when they talk. (Proper body language can help in attracting new friends to you, as well.)

Sum Up Your Friend's Points Before Responding

Too often, people wait until their friend finishes talking and then jumps right in with their thoughts. But a better method is to quickly sum up what your friend just said before you continue. This helps you understand the message that they really meant to get across, and gives them the validation that they've been heard.

After your friend finishes speaking, try saying:

  • "So, basically you're looking for..."
  • "Let me see if I'm hearing you correctly. You think..."
  • "Let me get my head around this. So he..."

Give a quick summary of what you heard and then continue with what you want to say. If there isn't really anything to add, you could still let your friend know that they were heard, by saying something like:

  • "I'm so sorry you're dealing with that."
  • "What a crazy day you've had!"
  • "That's the best story I've heard you tell. Hilarious!"

When you practice listening in an active and supportive way, your friends will notice. It's okay to hang back and be a sounding board for someone else, without worrying that you won't get to tell your own stories or concerns. You will. But if you can show someone that you're there for them in this way, they'll be more apt to listen closely to what you say.

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