If there is a single universal skill we’d all benefit from consistently improving at, it’s the ability to listen. Regardless of our jobs or relationship statuses, being an effective listener (and communicator, but we’ll save that for another day) is essential for building and maintaining fulfilling, successful relationships and overall lives. Functional and rewarding relationships of all kinds are one of the single greatest predictors of healthy aging and consistently high life satisfaction - so it’s worth our effort to show up the best we can within them. One key way to do that is to simply be a good listener.
Most of us aren’t born naturally good listeners. Our life experiences growing up and the communication styles of those around us (our parents, friends, colleagues, and partners) strongly influence how we learn to listen and communicate - and the good news is that we can always adjust these ways a bit to grow as people and improve.
Remove distractions (AKA pay attention)
This one seems obvious - but start to notice how often you’re subtly multitasking when you should be giving someone your undivided attention during a conversation. We may be able to “get by” in a conversation while we’re also responding to an email, keeping an eye on our child, or checking our phone every few minutes. While this may be true - not giving someone speaking to you your undivided attention both impairs your ability to fully pick up on more subtle (yet very important) information and also makes the other person feel that you don’t care enough about what they’re saying to give them just a few minutes of your time. Neither of these things encourages an effective conversation where both people leave feeling heard, respected, and (hopefully) understood. Consider this step one - put down your phone, put your work IM “away” message on, look up, and listen.
Use and attend to non-verbal cues
Eye contact promotes more positive social interactions and yields better communication. Most of our communication is actually non-verbal - so we’ll understand each other better if we pay attention to more than just what someone is saying - but how they’re saying it. Notice their tone of voice, whether someone’s shifting back and forth in their seat or fidgeting, or maybe clenching their jaw. Maybe they’re avoiding eye contact with you entirely. These are all cues that this person is struggling to communicate what they need to communicate and can help guide how you proceed. For instance, if you notice someone seems nervous, simply saying, “It’s ok. I’m glad you came to talk to me about ___. I’m here to listen,” can be enough to help create a more psychologically safe and calm environment.
Have summarizing check-ins throughout
The whole point of communication is to understand one another - nodding that you understand when really you could probably stand to clarify a couple of things helps no one and is a waste of time. If you’re going to have the conversation, you might as well get something from it! It can be really helpful to have intentional pauses in a conversation for the listener to reflect back and summarize to the speaker what they’ve just heard. This is a chance to clarify any miscommunications before moving on and allows the speaker to really feel that the listener truly wants to understand. Become familiar with phrases like “am I getting that right?” and “It sounds like…”.
Accept everyone’s experience as their truth
It can be tempting (especially in a conversation where your past actions may feel like they’re being questioned) to immediately get defensive when you disagree with what the speaker is saying. These situations can quickly spiral out of control, leaving both parties feeling frustrated and angry. It can even sometimes end a situation worse than it started. It’s important to remember that we all have different and unique lenses through which we see and interpret the world around us (and those in it).
An essential part of effective listening (and communication in general) is to remember that our experiences are all uniquely true for us and us only. The way we remember something happening may be very different from the way someone else does - and it’s not necessarily that someone is always “more right.” Most of the time, it’s not the objective fact of a situation that needs to be clarified - it’s simply empathy and understanding that needs to be nurtured.
Chances are we can all be better listeners - pick one or two things from the above list to focus on during your next conversation and notice what changes.