And I should know — I’ve long been a bad listener. But I’m getting better at it, and I believe anyone can learn how to be a better listener with a little focus and attention.
1. Be Curious
Good listening starts with actually taking an interest in others. Have you ever run into an old friend who talked nonstop about everything going on in his life but never stopped to ask what you’re up to?
Worse, have you ever been that old friend? I have, and it’s embarrassing.
These days I try to approach every conversation from the standpoint of what I can learn from the other person. I ask questions. And, of course, I listen to the answers.
It’s a fact of modern life that our heads are cluttered with mental to-do lists and angst over unreturned emails, texts and phone calls. But to truly tune in to what others are saying, we have to put aside those distractions and truly focus.
Do you know how it feels when the a person you’re talking to actually puts down her phone, leans forward and looks you in the eye? It feels great! Try to pass it on.
Paradoxically, listening is also about relaxation — turning off that instinct we all have to anticipate, to analyze, to judge. When we get a feel for where a conversation is going, we want to jump in and offer up an answer.
But it’s amazing what you hear when you actually let a conversation play out. When you open yourself up and take it all in.
4. Be Patient
I know a guy who sits down once a week with a friend for an hour. For the first 30 minutes, one talks — about anything and everything that’s going on in his life — and the other just listens.
And I mean listens. He can’t interrupt or ask questions or even interject the occasional “Awww” or “I’m so sorry.” Then they switch roles.
I tried this once for five minutes and I can tell you it felt like a half an hour. It’s really hard. Find a willing partner and give it a try. You both may be surprised at the result.
5. Don’t Interrupt
This one’s simple. It’s impossible to listen when you’re talking over someone else. Plus it’s just plain rude. Stop doing that.
6. Listen Beyond the Words
Words, of course, are just one way we communicate. Tune in to what the other person is telling you with her eyes, her expression, her body language and tone of voice.
If there’s a disconnect between what she’s saying and what you’re sensing, ask questions: how did the situation make her feel? How did others react?
7. Be Positive
I was always the master of devil’s advocacy. You give me an idea and I can identify five obstacles in your way.
There’s a time and a place for that kind of thinking, but if you’re always that person, there’ll be nothing left for you to listen to — because people will stop inviting you to meetings.
The Rule of Agreement reminds you to ‘respect what your partner has created’ and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a yes and see where that takes you.
Ideas need a chance to breathe. If you’re the guy always coming at them with a feather pillow, you’ll get marginalized pretty quickly!
Bonus Tip: Take an Improv Class
Speaking of improv, I highly recommend improv training for everyone. It’ll teach you to be a better listener, a better communicator and a better, braver person.
I happen to live in the improv capital of the world, but I guarantee that wherever you live, someone — a theater troupe, a comedy group, a community college — offers classes.
I promise it will change your life!