There’s an ancient saying that states that the reason we have two ears and only one mouth is because we’re meant to listen much more than we speak. Though it’s a bit of cliche, that’s a lesson that we should be carrying with us throughout life – and one you should practice in your conversations with others.
But being a good listener is a skill that not many can hone. It’s a little more complicated than it might seem! Here’s how experts reveal 7 things that make you a good listener.
1. Mirroring The Words Of Others
Mirroring other people has been known as a hallmark of good listeners for decades of research in sociology. But why does it work so well?
According to the Center for Leadership director Adam Goodman, there is a higher chance of misunderstanding someone than understanding them purely because of how many different factors are involved in accurate communication and listening.
These three behaviors might cause misunderstandings:
- Subconsciously anticipate what the person will say, causing preconceived ideas before the person has even spoken.
- Agree to the point initially, only to realize that the person meant something different a few sentences later
- Think too much about how to best respond to someone, causing you to drift into your own train of thought and miss key information from the other
Instead of doing this, there’s a better way to pay attention: by mirroring. In the context of listening, mirroring refers to the act of paraphrasing and repeating someone’s statements in your own words. This not only makes them feel like they’re being listened to, as it is an engaging and positive form of active listening, but it also forces you to focus on carefully attempting to understand the other person.
2. Making Eye Contact Reasonably
Eye contact establishes feelings of trust and helps you connect to the person you’re listening to. Looking away or refusing to meet someone’s eyes can send many bad messages to the person you’re trying to speak to.
Eye contact is a key sign that someone is listening, so lacking it usually conveys a lack of confidence or, worse still, just plain indifference. According to Michigan State University Extension educator Jodi Schulz, This is, who specializes in youth development, resource development, family enrichment, and similar areas of expertise. She also outlines some great, research-backed tips for making positive eye contact:
- When listening to someone, you should maintain eye contact approximately 70% of the time (this drops to 50% while you’re speaking)
- When looking at someone while listening, maintain an interested, open expression and smile if it’s appropriate.
- Hold eye contact for around four or five seconds before looking away.
- When looking away from a person, do so in a slow and relaxed manner to the side, not downwards or too quickly; doing either of the latter can make you look nervous or unsure.
- Establish this eye contact as soon as possible when someone begins speaking to you
- If you’re unused to or feel uncomfortable about eye contact, practice slowly and work your way up to confidence with the habit.
Naturally, certain neurodivergent individuals may be unable to maintain eye contact at all. If you’re one of them, then don’t worry! There are other ways to show that you’re listening, and the people who know you enough won’t take the lack of eye contact the wrong way.
3. Being Present
You can’t listen to something if you’re far away. That’s why all good listeners are capable of being mindful and present in their conversations, says the University of Maryland School of Social Work assistant professor, Paul Sacco, Ph.D. This awareness allows you to retain the information being said to you more easily, as you’re paying much more attention.
To be present, you should:
- Turn off or put away devices and screens.
- Stop doing other tasks, if possible.
- Clear your mind of other concerns for the time being.
- Turn your full attention towards the speaker.
- Ignore all distractions until the conversation is over, if possible.
Distracted listening sends an apparent message, whether consciously or subconsciously, to the person you’re supposed to be listening to. When you get distracted, the conversation shifts, and they get the idea that they’re not important to you.
Conversations have nuance. If you’re not present, it can be difficult – if not impossible – to correctly understand all of that nuance. So learn to shift your focus onto the person at hand!
4. Putting Away Agenda
You can’t help having a natural agenda in your life and interactions. Don’t feel bad about it – everyone has their own! But to be a good listener, you must learn to quiet that hidden agenda that may exist within you.
It’s easy to think about yourself when others are talking, but controlling your habits is your own responsibility, says MIT Leadership Center executive director Hal Gregersen. Quiet your mind and turn off any agendas that you may have. Besides, it’s important for you, as an individual who is learning and growing, to hear information contrary to your usual mindset!
There isn’t much point in listening to someone intelligent if you don’t walk away with more information and valuable thoughts than you initially had. If you think someone has any new information to offer you, you’re not listening well enough!
When you ask questions, you’re providing “feedback” to the speaker that shows that you’re not just listening but also interested. It’s also a method of validating the speaker’s feelings, says Sacco, and it can let you push the conversation forward in thought-provoking ways that are fulfilling to the person you’re listening to.
But there is, of course, a bit of a trick to asking questions that really promote better conversation without taking the spotlight from the listener. Essentially, you want to leave the listener with more positive thinking, feeling like they have been heard and understood.
Here are some tips for doing that when you’re in the seat of a listener:
- Ask for clarifications and elaborations where you need them; this indicates that you are genuinely seeking to understand the other person.
- Be empathic first and foremost; put yourself in that person’s shoes and try to understand the struggles or perspectives they see
- Try to aim for open-ended questions that allow the speaker to elaborate in a free and easy manner; “yes” or “no” types of questions can halt the conversation quickly.
- Don’t ask questions that challenge or belittle the speaker; this will result in defensiveness and is a mark of a poor listener.
- Don’t change the subject before the current topic has been correctly or naturally resolved; this gives the impression that you can’t be bothered to listen and want to hurry things along.
- Don’t naturally assume that you always have all the answers – your thoughts aren’t necessarily accurate to a person’s unique situation.
- Try to foster a genuine interest in the people you listen to; feigned interest is surprisingly easy to spot.
- Try to ask genuine questions, meaning ones you are actually interested in hearing the answers to; you’ll both enjoy the conversation much more.
- Don’t speak until the other person has finished their piece; interruption is not a sign of good listening in the slightest.
- Before you speak out of turn, ask yourself why you’re talking in the first place – if nothing productive can come of your speech, it’s best to wait and continue listening first.
6. Don’t Get Defensive
Defensiveness is nothing more than a wall of pride that keeps you from seeing what you need. If you’re defensive, you’re ultimately going to fail to listen, and no trick allows you to do both.
It’s actually pretty easy to listen well if you’re only being told what you personally want to hear, says Sacco. The trick comes in listening to someone that is telling you things that might:
- Hurt your ego
- Criticize you or give you negative feedback
- Trouble your thoughts with their implications
Yes, not all negative words indeed said to you will hold value worth retaining. But to sort out valuable, constructive criticism and meaningful, if difficult, information and separate them from the worthless negativity, you actually have to listen to it first.
This is easier said than done, but it’s important, to begin with positive thinking. Remember that you can improve yourself when you hear negative words. Focus on trying to understand what the other person is attempting to say to you before reacting defensively.
If you need to, step back and take a moment to process the information. Sometimes, learning to stop impulsive responses will make the difference between a productive and nonproductive listening experience.
7. Being A Good Leader
People who are good leaders inspire confidence in the people they work with. You can’t do that if you aren’t a good leader. In fact, many famous leaders, including Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson and Marriott International executive chairman J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr., believe that listening to employees and asking them for their opinion is crucial in being a good leader. This is because:
- Listening to others grants you insight into other perspectives and ideas that spring from other perspectives
- Showing others that you care about their thoughts lets them trust you more
- Respecting the opinions of others, even when you disagree with them, gives you additional information into the way the world runs
Studies show that a huge number of good listeners are perceived in positive ways as leaders and people who are worthy of the responsibility. So strive to learn from the people around you, and you’ll be a better listener and a better leader, all in one.
Being a good listener reflects well on your character, shows others that you care, and, somewhat unexpectedly, gives you the chance to better yourself. You can learn a lot from others’ words – and you can also gain closer bonds with the people you listen to if you do a good job of it!
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you have trouble listening at first. It’s a skill you need to practice and build up over time. Give others time to speak and concentrate on understanding them, not attacking them, or thinking of your own responses!