Most relationship challenges are due to poor communication. Failing to listen creates hurt feelings and missed connections. You’ve probably experienced speaking to someone and noticing their eyes looking somewhere else. You’ve probably gotten into fights over someone not paying attention to instructions well. Remember the game of telephone you played as a child? The message received by the last person was never the same as the original. The news skews, causing misunderstanding. This mishap happens more frequently than you’d think amongst adult conversations. Most people struggle to take their own opinions out of what they hear. As Stephen Covey states, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
When you listen, you gain trust with the speaker. Being fully present with someone (which is essentially listening) shows that you care about their feelings. Although hearing may be an innate ability, listening requires more practice. Hearing is registering sound; many people hear without genuinely listening. On the other hand, listening processes what you hear and turns it into understanding, essentially interpreting the sound as a message. Although most of us can hear, listening is not inherent, and there are several steps you can take to improve your listening skills to strengthen your relationships.
When people feel heard and cared for, they reciprocate the feeling. If you want to build mutually beneficial relationships, you better start listening.
Make the speaker the point of focus
A listening mindset is not about you. It’s about the speaker. Make them your point of focus. They are indirectly inviting you into their world with a free ticket to explore their ideas. Conversations are a gift that most people overlook. Acknowledge the privilege you receive when someone decides to share with you. Treat the practice of listening like a meditation. If you feel your mind wander, bring it back to the point of focus (the other person).
Engage with them
Crossing your arms, sighing, or looking away can signal to the speaker that you are disinterested. Eye contact gives the message that you are focused on the conversation. It allows the speaker to feel seen and heard. Make an effort to provide your full attention, and reinforce this action with visual cues and facial expressions (complete silence may give the wrong impression). Simply nod your head or utter words of affirmation like “mmm” or “that’s interesting.” These gestures will encourage the speaker and make them feel at ease. The more comfortable and safe they feel, the more they will open up and share.
Have an open mind
An open mind is necessary if you expect to learn anything. You compromise your effectiveness as a listener when you think you know everything already. Let go of preconceived ideas and allow yourself a fresh slate to absorb the new information (you must empty the cup before filling it). Do not indulge in judgemental internal dialogues. Try to see where the speaker is coming from with their thoughts and ideas. Intelligent people always admit that they have more to learn. They take every opportunity they have to expand their minds into new concepts.
Stop thinking about your response
Don’t worry about how you are going to respond. Focus more on comprehending and understanding the information and less on giving guidance. You are not required to have solutions to every problem. You can’t be listening to your own thoughts and their thoughts at the same time. Usually, people just want to be heard. Most of us feel a sense of ease when allowed to vent or express emotions. If someone wants help, they will ask, otherwise they may not be open to receiving your advice anyway.
Ask sparkling questions
Reply with a question that sparks further conversation. Avoid “yes” or “no” questions and ask about their feelings and points of view. Don’t jump to conclusions about what the person is trying to tell you; ask to clarify. Explore their perspective and ask questions to delve deeper into their mindest. Try to see from their point of view without mixing in your opinion. Quality questions allow you to connect with others genuinely. Ask yourself questions too, like why the person speaking is interested in the subject. Even if you are well-educated on the topic, ask what else you could learn about it.
Listening is a collaboration. Be sure not to interrupt the speaker (this is ego-based action that tells the speaker you feel what you have to say is more important). Wait for a lull to pose your questions. Ensure that what you are asking or have to say helps to expand and enhance the conversation. If it is a self-serving question, keep it to yourself.
Show that you are listening by summarizing what the speaker just said. Resist forming opinions or responses when recapping your understanding. Repeating the speaker demonstrates that you grasp and want to retain the information. It shows that you have paid attention and have given your undivided attention to the speaker. It also helps you organize the information coming in and process it. Try saying things like, “so what I am hearing is…” The ability to paraphrase back to the speaker is the best response you could give; more than advice, it validates that you were listening.
Put yourself in your speaker’s shoes. If they are telling a story, imagine it in your head. It allows you to be compassionate towards their experience and feelings (the unspoken language). People communicate their emotions silently. When you can pick up on and hear this subtle language, you create deep connections and trust with the other.
Use silence more frequently than you think is necessary. Be comfortable with a little quiet here and there. We often try to fill breaks in the conversation, but let your speaking partner take the lead. Be patient and grant adequate time and space for the speaker to ponder and explore thoughts and feelings. Taking a moment before responding will ensure that you do not interrupt them. It also lets them know you are happy to listen and do not rush to change the subject.
The bottom line
Although most of us can hear, listening is not inherent, and there are several steps you can take to improve your listening skills to strengthen your relationships. Listening is vital to building connections that lead to relationships. People gravitate to those who make them feel important and valued. Everyone wants to feel heard and understood. Listening is a skill that will improve your networking, lead to sales, and help you move up within your company. It shows competency and willingness to learn and grow. Strengthen your connections to allow people to trust you more and let you into their lives in a more meaningful way.
Think of all the things you would know already if you had actively listened to everything you ever heard. Focus on cultivating the ability to absorb information and process it through listening. You will not only become a more patient person, but you will gain a lot more than you’d think. By not listening, you not only miss the message but sacrifice an opportunity to learn as well.
What are some of your favorite techniques you use to make you a better listener? Tell us in the comments below!