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4 Things Good Listeners Do

Photo by Jan Fidler
One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. ~Bryant H. McGill

Some acquaintances and I were hiking together in a new spot. Everywhere we turned there were things to behold — falcons perched, coyotes hunting, altars built — it was an experience I can’t wait to repeat.

Since we were all fairly new friends, we all had plenty to tell each other. There was very little silence, even in such an awe-inspiring place. When I got home I realized that I didn’t remember a lot of what was said. I was embarrassed to admit it, but it seemed I had forgotten to listen.

I’ve been told many times that I’m a good listener; in fact, many people open up to me for just that reason. Maybe it was because I was tired, or maybe I was just out of practice (working alone will do that to you) but I decided to revisit some of the things I draw on to listen well. Here are four tips on how to listen:

1. Be Present

Distractions are an omnipresent part of our day. Try to think of the last time only one thing was vying for your attention. Even in your sleep you dream while your body rests!

What makes someone an excellent listener is their ability to tune out all that other stuff and really hear what the other person has to say. Quiet your mind and focus on the person speaking. If you’re on the phone, sit down; close your eyes and imagine the words leaving your friend’s mouth.

If you’re sitting next to each other, make eye contact and keep it. I find that if I look around, my ears will suddenly be interested in eavesdropping on a neighboring conversation or my eyes will fall on a newspaper headline. It seems no matter where you are there is something to pull you out of the moment, so focus on the person speaking.

When we’re present, you can observe more than just the words that a person is saying. You can see their expressions, hear the intonations and feel the emotions behind the sound. Listening is something that involves more than just one of our five senses — it is a visceral experience.

2. Ask Questions

I learned this skill from one of my dear friends. When I told her a story, she would ask for details or confirm a fact. For instance, if I spoke about a friend Nicole I was going to visit and she hadn’t met her, she would ask, “Now is that the person you met at your old newspaper job?”

It seems simple enough, but it helps the other person feel heard, and it gives you a much more complete picture of a person’s life. It adds depth to the words they speak. Suddenly the name Nicole isn’t just a word; she’s attached to many more memories and has a life of her own. By adding that dimension, details become easier to remember and you become a better listener.

Another thing questions can do is help you avoid judgment. So many times I’d catch myself saying “I don’t know what I think about that,” when I didn’t agree with a situation or idea someone was relaying to me. But that isn’t the point, is it?

The point is to find out what the person you’re listening to thinks about that. So ask, “What do you think about that?” It’s better than judging someone else, especially when you’re supposed to be listening.

3. Let Go of Ego

Speaking of judgment, the ego plays a big part in making those big, sweeping assessments that aren’t called for when you’re trying to help someone be heard. It also desperately wants to be the center of attention. For these reasons, it’s best to be aware when your ego shows up and then keep it in check.

One of the biggest ego problems I have is I want to swing the conversation back to something of mine. My friends. My cooking. Me, me, me! So when there’s a pause in the conversation, I let my first reaction play out in my head. Almost always it’s to tell a story of mine that is related, but beyond that is unimportant to the conversation.

Other ways an ego can play out is the desire to tell a story that is similar and in your opinion more impressive. I’ve even heard people say “I can beat that,” after someone else finishes speaking. The ego also likes to plan out what it’ll say before a person finishes speaking.

Play out your reaction for one second before you say anything with the awareness that your ego is probably trying to take control. Take a breath and consider what’s really important in the conversation — making sure the person speaking feels heard.

4. Be Aware of What They Want

When I was younger I constantly gave advice. Anyone who spoke to me about a problem could be sure to expect my expert opinion on what they should do, whether they wanted it or not.

Then someone said to me, “I just want to vent about this. I just need you to listen.” It was like a light bulb went off in my brain. Of course not everyone needed to be told what to do. In fact, most people don’t want to be told what to do.

When you’re listening to someone, try to ascertain what they want from you. Are you just a shoulder to cry on or are they asking for your advice? Is this something they want kept secret? Perhaps you know someone who could relate. Would they be open to chatting with others?

Be sensitive to all of this. If you’re not sure, ask. No one’s ever taken offense when I say, “Are you open to advice or are you more interested in just sharing with me?” In fact, most people are grateful.

Listening is a skill that takes a lifetime to develop. The more you practice, the more enjoyable it becomes. And even when you get good at it, there are always new things to learn.

Pay attention to how other people listen to you. What do you like? Can you implement that into your own listening style?

I’d love to learn from you. What’s your best piece of advice for being a good listener?

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About the author

Rebecca is a fierce optimist who believes in the power of making life happen. Magic and creativity are her latest pursuits, along with exploring her new home, Germany. Read her blog, follow her on Facebook and Twitter for her latest enthusiastic (and sometimes witty) remarks. Check out her new book, Change is Easy & Other Novel Concepts: Short Essays on Changing Your Life, One Step at a Time.

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