8 Steps To Become a Better Listener


Illustration by Nishant Choksi

How to become a good listener

1. Give your full attention

The first step to better listening is offering your full attention. You should use positive body language to demonstrate your availability for conversation. Position your body so you’re facing the other person directly, and get comfortable so you can concentrate on the conversation.

Make eye contact when you first begin talking with someone and continue to connect visually throughout the conversation. You don’t need to maintain unbroken eye contact, but you should look at the speaker often. Keeping regular eye contact helps you focus on the speaker and their words.

2. Eliminate distractions

Next, try removing distractions from the area, if possible. If you’re at your desk, put away paperwork and close your notebooks. Dim the screen on your computer or laptop to prevent yourself from becoming distracted by incoming emails. Turn down the sound so you won’t hear alerts during your conversation.

Phones can be one of the biggest causes of distractions, too. To make sure you can maintain full focus, turn off the ringer and put it in an area where you can’t see it or reach it easily.

If you’re attending a scheduled meeting, make sure you find a quiet room or space. Close the door to limit noise and external distractions. Try to make the area as comfortable as possible to enable focused listening.

3. Resist the temptation to interrupt

When you listen, one of the most effective steps you can take is to allow the other person to speak without interruption. If you’re concerned that you won’t be able to offer input or respond to questions, remember that you should have ample opportunities to speak later. If you can’t hear your conversation partner clearly, ask the other person to speak louder or make the move so you’re closer to them. If external noise is preventing you from hearing clearly, try shutting out any environmental sounds so you don’t have to ask the other person to repeat statements.

Another item to consider when having a conversation is your beliefs and bias. Sometimes an individual’s beliefs and biases about a subject might encourage listeners to interrupt a conversation. Understand your bias and belief, and then you can set them aside. This can help you remain objective during a conversation and can improve its quality.

4. Build rapport with movement

To encourage your conversation partner in sharing, try to make them as comfortable as possible. In addition to removing distractions and focusing your attention on the other person, try subtly mirroring their movements. Adopt a similar posture and use comparable body language as you listen. Reflect on their facial expressions to indicate that you understand what they’re saying.

Rather than making your gestures and body language too similar to the other person’s, make sure they reflect their mood. You’ll build a rapport with your conversation partner and establish trust, both of which are essential for being a good listener. You’ll also respond with empathy, which can open up lines of communication and help the conversation flow more naturally.

5. Ask for more details

Seeking understanding can help you better comprehend what the speaker is saying, which can help you formulate targeted questions. Ask questions that demonstrate you’re listening and truly interested. This can prompt the other person to continue sharing, giving you additional opportunities to listen.

Ask your conversation partner for more details, especially if you don’t understand the implications of a situation. You want to listen to the point where you can teach and instruct about the topic, so asking targeted questions and listening to expand your understanding of the subject can keep you engaged with your conversation partner.

Invite your recipient to share how an outcome made them feel rather than assuming their reaction. Remember that being curious can help you gather more information so you can provide better feedback later.

6. Paraphrase what you’ve heard

After you’ve listened carefully to your conversation partner and asked clarifying questions, try paraphrasing what the other person said. You can do this by saying things like, “It sounds like you’re saying,” or “What I hear you saying is,” or “What I think you mean is.”

This gives the other person a chance to clarify and see if you’re on the same page. Repeating what you’ve heard helps you avoid assuming what the other person said or thought while offering your colleague an opportunity to reflect on the discussion.

7. Note nonverbal cues

Another important step to improving your listening skills is paying attention to nonverbal communication. Take note of the other person’s facial expressions, hand gestures, tone of voice and eye contact throughout the conversation. Also, be aware of your own nonverbal cues as you listen and speak.

How to listen to a friend who is down

The first step, Pam says, is being aware of the barriers. If your friend is feeling low, even expressing sympathy can get in the way. “We think it’s helpful to say, ‘I know exactly what you mean, I went through something similar…’ but that’s you talking about your own feelings, rather than allowing your friend to tell you what it’s like for them. When a person wants to express their pain, your experiences aren’t relevant to them.” A similar, common mistake is to leap to offer advice before being asked. “Giving advice is not listening, and often it’s not helpful,” Pam adds. “It shuts people down. If you feel a responsibility to fix your friend’s problems, relinquish it.”

The hardest habit for me to break was the instinct to turn the conversation round to the positive. It took a while for me to understand that if a friend is in a dark place, the most compassionate thing we can do is to climb down into that place and sit with them for a while. “If a person trusts you enough to talk about their distress, trying to cheer them up is like shutting them up – you are dismissing and trivialising their feelings,” Pam says. “Give them the space to say how bad they feel and stay with it. Swerving away from it, talking about a silver lining, can signal you don’t want to hear it.” Focus on your friend and their words. Thinking too much about your responses can be detrimental. “Sometimes, my mind’s whirring and I’m so busy thinking about what to say that I leap ahead,” Pam explains. “So I make a constant effort to calm my mind down and tune into what is being said.”

It is possible, when you know how, to say a lot without saying anything at all. “Just being a calm presence can give someone the trust and confidence to open up to you,” she tells me. Your body language should look engaged, perhaps leaning forward, and be open to making eye contact but also sensitive to people who might find it unnerving. Adopt a soft, caring voice, but beware, Pam warns: “There’s a fine line between sounding warm and gentle, and sounding patronising and pitying. Don’t talk down to anyone, just show genuine interest.”

Your most important tool, she says, is silence. “Don’t be afraid of silence; learn to hold it. Although it may feel uncomfortable to you, it won’t to them. They’re working through painful thoughts and feelings, so don’t rush them. People will start opening up if you don’t interrupt.”

How to listen to your partner

The closer you are to your partner, the harder you have to work to truly listen to them, says Susan Quilliam, relationship coach and author of the Relate guide, Stop Arguing, Start Talking (Vermilion, £9.99). “That security, history and intimacy – being able to finish each other’s sentences, treating your partner as if he or she is a part of yourself – can mean our listening gets a little fuzzy. There’s a kind of mutual dependency and mental enmeshment that means you really have to struggle hard to listen to your partner as if he or she is a stranger.” Quilliam estimates that most couples will genuinely talk and listen to each other for only 20 minutes a week, and that this can have a huge impact. “Other people see your public selves, a loving couple in a functional partnership, but somewhere in your heart, you know there’s something wrong: you don’t feel heard, and neither does your partner.”

There is a way back. To find it, Quilliam says, “You need to re-establish the habit that was there when you fell in love with each other, when there was nothing better than listening to your beloved explain who they are.” She suggests reclaiming 10 minutes every day when you are both alone and can sit on the sofa and listen to each other for five minutes each; set an alarm to go off at the end. She calls this one-way listening, where one partner is given all the focus, so the listener can allow his or her mind to settle without thinking of what to say next. “This way, when your partner really needs to talk, your listening muscle will be trained.”