Most of us know the importance of effective listening. Effective listening, also known as active listening, can help you in many areas such as learning a language, resolving conflicts, becoming a better trainer/coach/teacher and also with memorization and retention of school work. Unfortunately, many people and especially the younger ones, do not understand the importance of active listening. Active listening includes reading between the lines when the speaker is unable to articulate or say something clearly. Effective listening is so important that many companies these days opt to train their employees in it so that they can boost communication and productivity at work. Let us look at some tips to improve listening in any scenario.
1. Timing is important
One of the barriers to effective listening is the timing. If you have something else on your mind, you must let the speaker know you are busy and tell him/ her that “this is really important. I want to speak to you about it-but just not now. Can we speak later this evening?” Immediately fix up a time and follow up on it. This is very important to really get what the speaker is saying. Parents must take the time out to actively listen to their kids. Bosses and managers also need to actively listen to their employees.
2. Give your 100% attention
Face the speaker; make eye contact with her/him. Minimize all distractions. Keep away your phone. Turn off the music or TV. Put down that book or magazine. Sign out of whatever it is you were doing. Create a mental space that you have to listen actively for the next 5-10 minutes. Tell yourself mentally that you are in a different role now. If there is a pressing matter that needs your attention, do that first so that you can listen with 100% attention.
3. Test yourself
There are many barriers to active listening. Perform these active listening exercises to test how effective your listening is. Answer the following questions as honestly as you can:
- Do you find yourself distracted/thinking something else/daydreaming etc when someone speaks to you? How often does that happen?
- How often do people have to repeat themselves when talking to you?
- Do I make eye contact with the speaker? How often do I not make eye contact?
- Do I summarize what someone else has said to me?
- If the topic is not of interest, I stop listening. How often does this happen?
- I start talking when people are talking. I interrupt frequently. How often does that happen?
- I have the habit of interrupting or changing topics.
- I fidget, shift in my chair, start tapping when someone talks to me.
- I often play on my phone, check messages when people talk to me.
4. Respond appropriately
In order to show you are effectively listening, it is a good idea to encourage the speaker to continue speaking. This includes nodding, saying appropriate things like Yes, Hmm, Oh-no etc. Murmur these words so that the speaker is not distracted or interrupted. Ask appropriate questions. Other prompts like ‘Interesting’, ‘What did he/she say?’ etc can also help encourage the speaker.
5. “Listen to hear, do not listen only to respond”
Often people listen with half the attention because all the time their thought is focused on what to respond to the speaker. This is not effective listening rather it can be a major distraction. So give your complete attention to the speaker and do not think of what you have to say. Once you have heard the speaker say what s/he wanted to say, you will automatically/logically know what to say.
6. Meditate daily
You might wonder what meditation has to do with effective listening. Meditation helps you curb the mental chatter and minimize internal distractions. With daily practice, you can extend this ‘mental silence’ and clarity to all aspects of your life. During meditation, you simply learn to observe your thoughts and also to let go those thoughts and not ‘cling’ on to them. With meditation, you indirectly learn to become an effective listener and sharpen your active listening skills. You can easily focus on the speaker without letting your thoughts become an internal distraction.
7. Avoid assumptions and judgments
An important part of active listening is listening without prejudice. You may have already made up your mind about an issue. But do not let that cloud your listening. Your job right now is to listen with 100% attention. Who knows: you may get many new insights about the matter at hand. This is especially important for students in class. When a teacher is teaching, avoid bringing in thoughts like ‘oh, this is too hard’ or ‘how will I finish all this?’ etc. Stop those thoughts and give your 100%. Keep all judgments aside. Whether you disagree with the speaker or agree with him/her, wait until they have finished what they have to say. Do not try to assume what the speaker may be thinking.
8. Do not mention your own stories
Many listeners have this habit of talking about themselves and how they handled similar situation or scenarios. This is not the effective way of listening. Unless the speaker specifically asks for advice of what you’d do or say, then and only then give your two cents. Sometimes, people just want to vent. They only want you to listen and not speak.
9. Do not defend yourself immediately
In case a person is accusing you of something, do not start defending yourself right away. Listen to the whole story first. Allow the speaker to make their point. Understand the whole argument before they respond. Studies have shown that humans can listen four times faster than they can talk. So listen completely. This will give you ideas that you can sort through and prepare for the defense.
10. Jot down questions
An important part of effective listening or active listening is to paraphrase and summarize what the speaker has said. This comes handy in school for students. When the speaker is speaking, do not interrupt with your questions. Instead jot them down for later. After you ask questions, again paraphrase what they have said. Start by saying: So you are saying…. This can give you plenty of clarity about things.
11. Keep a welcoming approach
There is a reason why someone wants to talk to you. He or she may need specific help or advice. So make that person feel welcome, safe and comfortable. Set the tone for the speaker so s/he can open up completely. Keep a positive, warm and caring approach. A slight smile on the face and relaxed posture can help the speaker feel more comfortable.
12. Read the non verbal cues
There is a reason why someone seeks you out to speak to. Observe their body language? Do they seem distressed, upset, confused, and/or hesitant? Do they seem afraid or angry? Tune in to their feelings and emotions because they might be having a hard time talking about something. Further the conversation by asking certain questions like ‘Do you mean to say…?’ or ‘Can you tell me more..?’ etc. Ask these questions from the point of view of getting the speaker to talk more instead of trying to satisfy your own curiosity.
13. Keep things confidential
There may be times when someone asks you to keep some things private. However, you must not make any promises of confidentiality especially if the speaker is at a risk. If you need, you must divulge the information to the right person. So safety is primary concern here and that should be your focus.
14. Know your limits
Sometimes, people take you for granted as a listener. But it can be overwhelming if the speaker continues to unload their problems on you. If you feel you are no longer able to help the speaker, then it is best that you refer the matter to someone else.