You Can Improve Your Skill of Listening
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
Photo by saeed karimi on Unsplash
How well do you listen to someone when they are speaking to you? Do you make eye contact and hear what they are saying, or do you keep looking at your watch or telephone and are otherwise distracted? Have you considered what you are saying to the other person through your actions? Whether you know it or not, how you listen shouts volumes of information to the person speaking.
How well do you listen?
How would you rate your ability to listen? Do you somewhat pay attention, listen intently, or merely hear them talking like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon – wha, wha, wha?
Did you know listening is a skill you can develop? Listening is one of the most valuable skills you can learn. Improving your listening skills improves your entire life.
To listen is to make sense of what you hear when others speak. To understand what another person is saying requires you to actively listen to them – paying attention, hearing, interpreting, understanding, and remembering.
Disputes and problems in the home and workplace often occur because someone is not listening to or hearing what someone is saying. If you want to improve and maintain the best possible relationships, sharpening your listening skills is vital.
Let's look at some aspects of listening to understand how you can hone this skill.
To ensure we are on the same page, the definition of "listen" from the Oxford Languages dictionary is:
listen (verb) - give one's attention to a sound.
Not much of a definition, is it? To gain a better understanding of the word listen, it helps to look at its opposite terms. Some of these include:
listen antonyms – ignore, disregard, reject, neglect, dispute, and speak
These antonyms are far more telling than the definition since they accurately describe what too many people do when they should be listening. Could a reason we treat people with such disregard be that we simply do not understand how we can benefit from listening? Perhaps, perhaps not. Let's look at what you can gain by learning to sharpen your listening skills.
Benefits of Better Listening
Improving listening skills provides significant benefits in life, a few of which include:
Improved personal and work relationships
Increased likability and friendliness
Being more respectful
Being more respected and taken more seriously
Improved focus and attention to detail
Improved learning, greater clarity, and better understanding
Improved performance at work and in life
Enhanced opportunity for advancement on the job
Any of these benefits make it worthwhile to learn more about listening.
Types of Listening
At least two fundamental types of listening exist – passive and active.
Passive listening is a low level of listening. It's often little more than hearing the words someone speaks as sounds, defined as being non-responsive/non-reactive and not paying attention to the speaker.
How often do you listen passively to another person?
"When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen." Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Active listening, as the name suggests, is listening with an intent to understand. It occurs when you concentrate on what the speaker is saying. As you pay attention, you make eye contact when appropriate. You notice their eyes, facial expressions, body language, behaviors, and more.
When interacting with someone, which listening type do you prefer?
"Most of the successful people I've known are the ones who do more listening than talking." Bernard Baruch (1870-1965)
Levels of Listening
There is a wide variety of information and opinions about how many listening levels exist. Following are some basic levels, starting from low-level listening to increasingly higher levels.
Ignoring what someone is saying is the lowest level of listening. Listening at this level happens when you ignore someone or can occur when you are distracted. Others will see your distraction as not caring about what they are saying. To ignore is the lowest level of listening.
"We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less." Diogenes (c. 412-323 BC)
Pretending is appearing to listen while not hearing what the person is saying, a patronizing form of listening. You can get by with it for a time, but when the speaker asks you a question, you have no idea how to respond since you weren't listening. Most of us have had this trap catch us. It can be very uncomfortable! When caught, you lose credibility with the speaker, who is likely offended as well.
"You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time." M. Scott Peck (1936-2005)
A slightly higher level of listening is selective listening, as it allows some amount of paying attention to the speaker. The issue with this form of listening is you hear some but not all of what is said. Because of this, you can fall into the same trap as pretending to listen if asked a question at the wrong time. Similarly, defensive listening is selectively hearing criticism or listening from a negative perspective. You hear what you want to hear with an incorrect interpretation of what the speaker is saying.
"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." Stephen R. Covey (1932-2012)
Active listening is the level to strive for as a minimum. As the name implies, you pay attention to the other person and internalize the message. Listening with an open mind, maintaining appropriate eye contact, noticing body language, thinking, understanding, reflecting, and rephrasing to obtain clarity are essential at this level. The speaker can see you are engaged in listening and desiring to understand what they are saying.
"Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer." Ed Cunningham (1969-present)
Empathic listening requires mental and emotional energy and can take significant effort. Listening at this level adds your heart/emotions to your understanding, achieved with those most important or closest to you, often at critical times. Listening at this level is draining and will exhaust you. Few people reach this level, and usually only for short periods.
"Listening is being able to be changed by the other person." Alan Alda (1936-present)
Improving Your Listening Skills
By taking to heart and practicing some of the following items, you can significantly improve your listening skills.
When someone is speaking to you:
Pay attention to their voice and its inflections (are they speaking in a flat monotone voice or with varying degrees of intonation - what does this tell you about them and their message?)
Notice their mood and emotions (calm, excited, anxious, vulnerable, etc.)
Carefully observe gestures, body language, and general behaviors (relaxed, fidgeting, moving a lot, using their hands when they speak, etc.)
Calm the voice or voices and other distractions in your head
Face the speaker and maintain appropriate eye contact
Keep an open mind, avoid judging or being critical in any way
Listen to learn, leaving all other agendas aside
Be present, calm, and relaxed
Never interrupt or offer solutions unless asked
Try to visualize what the speaker is saying
Listen to the words and phrases they use and the overall content and context of what they are saying
Allow no distractions such as a cell phone, window, background, or anything else while they speak
Stay focused on their eyes or face and avoid looking away as much as possible
Pay attention not only to what they are saying but to what is not said as well
When you speak, be sure to:
Seek to understand
Provide genuine feedback as appropriate
Ask clarifying questions with a sincere interest
Encourage elaboration by asking open-ended questions
Obtain specific information by asking closed-ended questions
Affirm them in a genuinely positive way when you can
"If you make listening and observation your occupation, you will gain much more than you can by talk." Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941)
Choose any of the above items to begin working on improving your listening ability. Take one small step at a time to ensure you make progress and celebrate your successes.
Find someone you can share this article with and ask them to join you. Become each other's accountability partner so you and they can each benefit and improve each other's careers and lives.
Listening is the most basic, fundamental part of communication skills. Developing this interpersonal skill will set you apart from the average person or employee. You will earn far more respect from others as you show them the respect of attentive listening.
"One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say." Bryant H. McGill (1969-present)
Do not pass on the opportunity to sharpen your listening skills. You are not the only one who benefits, but all those around you benefit as well. What a great way to improve your relationships!
I challenge you to give serious consideration to the following wisdom from a highly respected psychiatrist from the last century:
"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand." Karl A. Menniger (1893-1990)
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