3 Ways to Be a Better Listener

Enhance your listening skills with these tips.
By Julie Baumgardner
February 19, 2018

A few years ago a video, It’s Not about the Nail, went viral. Today, there are over 16 million views. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the watch! 

The video shows a husband and wife arguing about a nail in her forehead that is snagging all of her sweaters and causing her headaches. When her husband tries to tell her that the nail is causing the problem, she becomes defensive and tells him he always tries to fix things – when what she really needs is for him to listen. When he listens to her describe how awful it is to have this constant nagging pain, he responds by saying, “That sounds really hard.” Relieved that she feels like he finally understands, she says, “It is. Thank you.”

Whether you’re listening to your child, a co-worker, your spouse or you want others to listen to you, something powerful happens when people feel like someone is not only listening, but hearing them.

When asked, “How do you know when someone is listening to you?” people said things like, “They don’t interrupt me when I am talking. They look at me. I can tell they are 100 percent zoning in on what I am saying and not distracted by their phone or who might be walking through the door. They ask questions to make sure they are on the right track.”

Most people believe they are good listeners, but when you get right down to it, we live in a society full of noise, and most of us have a hard time slowing down enough to listen well. In fact, many are so used to the chatter they literally have a hard time focusing when it’s quiet. 

One thing is for sure: You cannot seek to listen well and also be doing something else. 

David Myers’ work as the director of the Brain Cognition Lab at the University of Michigan makes it very clear that the brain does NOT multitask. It may act in parallel functions (touch, sound, vision), but when engaging in distinctly different tasks, the brain operates like a toggle switch – jumping from one thing to another. You cannot be looking at emails and listening to someone talk about their day at the same time. It’s literally impossible.

If you want to enhance your listening skills, consider trying some of these strategies:

  • Be attentive. If you feel distracted, move to a different room. If timing is bad, say so and propose a different time to talk so someone can have your full attention. 
  • Ask questions. Sometimes, asking clarifying questions can help to make sure you are tracking with the conversation and not making assumptions. This also helps cut down on the temptation to start crafting your response instead of listening to the very end.
  • Pay attention to body language. Even young children will grab their parent’s face and say, “Look at me,” when they are trying to tell them about their day. We can tell when people are present without really being present by the look in their eyes. Turn toward the person who is speaking and make eye contact with them – it shows them you are not just physically present in the moment. Taking notes can help you stay focused, but it also sends a message that you are paying attention.

Listening is a skill that takes practice. If we are honest, most of us would admit we can do a better job of listening to the people in our world, whether we agree with them or not. While listening well takes time and energy, it’s a worthwhile investment in any relationship, especially since communication involves both talking AND active listening. People know that what they say matters when you listen well. 

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