Joanna is going through a divorce and is telling her friend Cyndi all about the latest things her ex did. To a casual observer, it looks as if Cyndi is listening. If she had a comic strip bubble overhead of the thoughts running through her mind it would say: “People get divorced all the time. Why are you thinking like such a victim? He’s a jerk. It’s time to move on.” Cyndi thinks she’s a good listener. After all, she’s not interrupting or fidgeting, is she? Cyndi is hearing her friend. But, like so many of us, she’s just not truly listening. Human survival requires us to communicate our needs from birth to death. Infants observe, listen, cry, scream, babble and smile to interact with mother/parent. As we grow we acquire language, learn to speak, to read and write. Communication helps us develop relationships and gain a vast amount of knowledge. So despite this important capacity to communicate, many people do not learn to cultivate a vital part of communication: how to really listen. The rewards to becoming a good listener are huge. Good listeners have happier marriages, better relationships with family members, fewer misunderstandings between friends, less interpersonal conflict at work, and overall calmer and less stressful lives. And there is an additional benefit of becoming a really good listener. When we listen well, we become someone other people want listen to. Seven Tips to Becoming a Better Listener In The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, author Michael Nichols, makes these 7 key points about listening:
- Believe that you can learn to be a really good listener.
While some might be better than others, listening is not determined by being educated, intelligent, rich or popular. Anyone can become a better listener. Being a really good listener has great advantages and can lead to being to more popular and effective. Men can learn to listen just as well as women.
- Set aside distractions.
Wherever you are at home, or out at a restaurant or even having a walk in the park there are lots of distractions everywhere. We seem to have to be connected at all times.When in conversation get in the habit of turning off your cell phone (or put it on silent), the radio, TV, computer. Pay full attention to the person who is speaking.
- Be an active listener.
Real listening requires paying careful attention to what is being said, how it is being said – voice tone and the emotion behind the words, and the non-verbal communication like body language, and facial expressions. Sometimes it is even more important to listen to more than what is said and read between the lines. Good listening is actively responding, not just in words but with our facial expressions, head nods and comments of understanding (“Really?” “Is that right?” “Uh-uh.” “You’ve got to be kidding!”). Good listeners show we are fully engaged.
- Turn off the noise inside your mind.
To listen we have to ignore all other thoughts in our heads. We need to clear our minds of worries we may have. We need to reserve judgments and criticisms of what is being said. It helps for us to remain open-minded.
- Resist the urge to give advice and suggestions unless asked.
Good listeners do not try to “fix” the problem unless asked. Most of the time people just want to be heard, validated and acknowledged. Listening well often helps the person come up with their own solution. When we listen well it makes the other person feel cared about and connected to us. That in itself is valuable.
- Remain open, not reactive.
When someone tells us something we don’t want to hear or upsetting, we may become defensive. We can get quiet and shut down. Or we may react with judgement or criticism. True listening requires calming our emotional responses and resisting the need to defend ourselves. If we have a difference of opinion or the speaker is being unfair or rash, that’s okay. We are more likely to have a chance to offer our ideas later, if they feel heard first.
- Take time to connect to strengthen relationships.
Listening takes time. To maintain good relationships, finding the time and taking time is important. Story telling is a way that we connect with one another. As social beings, we need to connect with others and feel we belong through activities, similar interests, family, or work. Communicating well, in a wide variety of ways, helps us feel a greater sense of belonging.
Now Practice Being a Better Listener
- Think of a person who would love to have you listen to them more attentively. What gets in the way? If you were to listen more closely, how would it affect your relationship? How would your listening affect how they feel about you and themselves?
- Make a list of things that might not be worth listening to and instead be alone with your thoughts. These could be mindless TV programs, your iPod, radio in the car, and social media like Facebook. Spending time in silence can be very good practice to becoming a better listener.
- Think of a person you avoid telling things to because of the way they typically respond to you. Plan in advance to make a gentle caring comment about their tendency the next time they do it. Let them know your preference of how to be spoken to if they are interested.
Imagine that a week later we are back at the coffee shop with Joanna and Cyndi after Cyndi has learned the six listening tips above. Cyndi asks,” How are things going with your ex?” and pauses and listens while Joanna recounts another story about what stupid thing her ex did this past week. But this week, instead of passively silently judging her friend, she listens carefully and then says “You know Joanna, I can’t quite relate to what you are going through. While my marriage is not perfect, I am pretty content. It sounds pretty bad what you have to deal with.” To which Joanna says, ”Really?! Thank you for saying that. You never say too much so I was not too sure what you thought. I know I can go on and on about my ex at times. It helps to have someone to tell my struggles to. So now, tell me about what is new in your life?” By really listening and remaining engaged in a conversation, we can help others feel connected and really cared about. As author Nichols puts it, “Listening isn’t a need we have; it’s a gift we give.”