Four Keys to Becoming a Better Listener

In a recent post, I shared a statement from a friend that has become a personal affirmation:

I will be where I am….wherever I am.

For me, presence starts with what Emotional Intelligence expert Dr. Travis Bradberry calls “the art of listening.” Isn’t it interesting that he refers to listening, something that seems as basic to human functioning as breathing or swallowing, as an art? Dr. Bradberry’s description underscores the fact that listening goes way beyond merely hearing. Indeed as he puts it in his best selling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0:

Listening isn’t just about hearing words; it’s also about listening to the tone, speed, and volume of the voice. What is being said? Anything not being said? What hidden messages exist below the surface?

So… why is it so hard to listen?

As I shared in an earlier post on conversation skills, the average person can speak at a rate of approximately 225 words per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute. Our minds tend to fill in the other 275 words (a huge struggle for me!) which is precisely why it takes energy and concentration to be attentive during a conversation.

“Just try to be a better listener.”

I can think of so many times, after reading an article or listening to a podcast on the importance of listening, when I’ve resolved to “just try harder,” only to find that I forgot the names of the couple I was introduced to at church on Sunday after zoning out during the sermon as I thought about my upcoming busy week.

The fact is, simply trying harder rarely works; listening is a skill and, like any other skill, it requires discipline, intentionality and resolve to improve. As public radio host and TED Talk speaker Celeste Headlee notes:

It takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone. But if you can’t do that, you’re not in a conversation — you’re just two people shouting out barely-related sentences in the same place.

In my quest to become a better listener (I do feel like I am slowly making progress!), I’ve discovered a few key behaviors that have a disproportionate influence on my success . Here are four:

1) Maintain eye contact.
When I started my first sales job out of college, selling copiers in Grand Rapids, my manager used to remind me, “You’ll never sell anything to anyone if they won’t first sit down at your desk and look you in the eye.” He was right; it was an insight that never failed to prove itself, whether I was selling copiers, cars, or concepts. Indeed, the desire for genuine communication demands eye contact. It signals to the other person that they have your full attention.

I recall shopping for furniture with my wife shortly after we got married. At the first store we shopped, I distinctly remember the salesperson rarely looking at my wife, even though she was the main decision maker. I also recall that we didn’t buy anything there.

Also, watch your posture–make sure it is open and inviting, and demonstrate your attention by smiling and nodding occasionally. This is especially important if you’re in a conversation with someone you know well and are comfortable with, like your spouse or sibling, where you may be tempted to grab your phone or laptop.

2) Give others the space to speak.
As Stephen Covey points out in his iconic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand, but with the intent to reply.” Often, especially in a heated conversation (think politics or sports), there’s often an irresistible temptation to either finish someone’s sentence or respond before they’re done speaking. What’s more, it’s modeled every evening on Fox News, CNN and countless other news and talk shows that thrive on conflict and confrontation. The best way to avoid this obnoxious behavior is to train yourself to wait until someone is completely finished speaking, even if there’s a few seconds of space before you reply.

3) Give the speaker frequent feedback.
One of the best tools I learned in an excellent training session at Northwestern Michigan College is the skill of paraphrasing, or reflecting back on what the customer tells you. I recall sharing the highlights of a study in France that showed that restaurant servers who repeated their customer’s food orders to their satisfaction received up to 25% higher tips than those who simply recorded the order.

Also, demonstrate to the speaker that you understand and are interested by their responses. Examples like “You must have been angry,” “What a difficult ordeal for you,” and “How were you feeling?” show genuine interest and concern.

4) Embrace mindfulness.
As a Christian, I distanced myself from even considering the practice of mindfulness, writing it off as a product of new age, eastern mysticism. Then a Christian friend of mine–a trained therapist–shared with me the positive influence of simple mindfulness behaviors in everything from relieving depression to improving sleep in his patients. As I researched it further, I discovered that mindfulness is simply the act of paying attention and living in the present moment. In fact, according to Psychology Today, mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present.”

In our increasingly distracted culture, most people’s minds wander: When they’re at work, they daydream about being on vacation; when on vacation, they worry about work piling up on their desks. They dwell on invasive memories of the past and obsess about what may or may not happen in the future. Being mindful means concentrating your attention and awareness on the present moment–in this case, on the speaker with whom you’re conversing. Research is continually revealing the tremendous benefits of mindfulness–in relieving stress, improving relationships, promoting better health, even accelerating athletic performance. (Note: There is a branch of mindfulness that centers around meditative techniques intended to empty your mind and connect to an alternate state of consciousness–that’s not what I am advocating).

BONUS: Learn to develop genuine curiosity.

Have you encountered someone who is genuinely curious? I recall hosting a neighborhood association meeting in our home when one of our guests noticed a family portrait hanging above our fireplace. Instead of merely acknowledging the photo, she inquisitively asked my wife and me about each of our children. You could tell through the tone of her voice and her persistent follow up questions that she wasn’t merely asking to be polite; she was genuinely interested in our family. She was genuinely curious–she was present. Curious people notice things others ignore, taking the focus off themselves and placing it squarely on others, adding genuine richness and life to any encounter or gathering.

Which one of these listening behaviors resonates the most with you? Which one challenges you the most? How do you feel about mindfulness? On a scale of 1 -10, how would you rate yourself in genuine curiosity? Why?

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    3 Responses to Four Keys to Becoming a Better Listener

    1. Grant Porteous March 24, 2017 at 9:20 pm #

      Hey, great post, Bill. The longer I do almost any sort of work – individual, family, or business – the more I realize how vital and how challenging communication skills are to all areas of life – and listening is the key to the castle.

    2. Bill Marsh Jr March 25, 2017 at 11:35 am #

      Thanks Grant. Your insights have contributed so much to my understanding of presence in communication.

    3. Nick Twomey March 26, 2017 at 11:08 pm #

      I hated this blog because it kicked my butt. Thanks Bill!

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