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We're not actually that good at listening!

Listening is one of the most important skills you can have. How well you listen has a big impact on your quality of relationships with other people - whether that is a colleague, a friend or a family member.


With all the listening that we do, you'd think we're good at it. We're actually not! Research suggests that we only remember between 25 and 50% of what we hear.


Chances are, you've been in a situation where you have been sharing something with someone and they are clearly not focusing on what you are saying. It can leave you feeling unsatisfied, disappointed or worse, unseen.


Listening is a skill that we can all benefit from improving. By becoming a better listener, you can improve your productivity and your ability to engage, influence and negotiate. You can also reduce the chance of conflict and misunderstandings.


What is active listening?


The way to improve your listening skills is to practice 'active listening'. This is where you make a conscious effort to not only hear the words that another person is saying, but more importantly, the complete message that is being communicated.


In order to do this, you must pay attention to the other person very carefully. You cannot allow yourself to become distracted by whatever else may be going on around you, or by forming your next sentence while the other person is speaking. You can't allow yourself to get bored and lose focus on what the other person is saying.


TIP: If you're finding it particularly hard to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating their words mentally as they say them. This will reinforce their message and help you to stay focused.


To enhance your listening skills, you need to let the other person know that you are listening to what they're saying. Acknowledgment can be something as simple as a nod of the head or a simple "uh huh". You're not necessarily agreeing with them but you are indicating that you are listening.


Try to respond to the speaker in a way that will encourage them to continue speaking, so that you can get the information that you need. If the speaker pauses, try not to fill the silence with your own thoughts - give them the space they might need to reflect on what they want to say next.


Tips for active listening


Show that you're listening.


Use your own body language and gestures to show that you are engaged:

  • Nod occassionally

  • Smile (when appropriate) and use other facial expressions

  • Make sure that your posture is open and engaged

  • Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like "yes" and "uh huh"


Listen to non-verbal cues


Facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures can tell you just as much as what is being said in words. Pay attention to what the other person is saying with their body language. Are they smiling, are their arms crossed defensively, are they rubbing their eyes as if they're tired or upset? Even on the phone you can learn a lot from someone's tone of voice.


Don't interrupt


Being interrupted is frustrating for the other person - it gives the impression that you think you're more important, or that you don't have time for what they have to say. Remember, a pause or a few seconds of silence doesn't mean that you have to jump in. Letting the other person speak will make it easier for you to understand their message.


TIP: If you're naturally a quicker thinker or speaker, force yourself to slow down so that the other person can express themselves.


Paraphrase, summarise


Paraphrasing (or reflecting)

This is repeating back what has been said to show that you understand but in a shorter version.

For example: "It sounds like you're saying you... are having a hard time in meetings/ are worried about what others think of you etc."


Summarising

This is where you find a way to thread the details together, then ask to make sure you have understood correctly.

For example: "It sounds like you're frustrated because your manager has not made time to meet with you, is that correct?"


Don't impose your opinions or solutions


It's not always easy, but listening instead of telling someone what they should do is important.


If you think you have a good idea or you want to share your opinion, ask first. For example: "I understand what you're saying, would it be okay to offer my opinion/a suggestion/some advice that might help?"


If the person says 'no', accept that and allow them to continue.


Validate

It's important to validate how that other person is feeling, even if you can't relate or understand the reasons why.


For example: "I know this wasn't easy to talk about. It sounds like a really difficult situation and it is understandable that you're feeling (anxious/ worried/ upset). Thank you for sharing this with me."


Employ the pregnant pause


Rather than jumping into a response after someone has finished speaking, give yourself a chance to reflect on what has been said and decide what you want to say.


It's perfectly okay to say to the person that you need a few seconds to think about what to say.


Listen without judging or jumping to conclusions


If you start to react emotionally to what is being said, it can get in the way of listening to what you're being told. Try to focus on listening and what the person is saying to you.



Open-ended questions


  • Open-ended questions are those that allow for a response that isn't simply 'yes' or 'no'.

  • Open-ended questions are really useful with active listening and can allow you to gain greater understanding of what you are being told, and can also provide a helpful cue for the person to expand on what they have already said.

Some examples:

  • Can you tell me a bit more about XXX?

  • How did that make you feel?

  • What is the best possible outcome for you in this situation?

  • How long have you been thinking about this?

  • What is your understanding of XXX?

TIP: Where possible, try to avoid questions that start with "why" as they can often sound accusatory. Try to also avoid leading questions, such as, "wouldn't it be better to...?" or "will it be worse if you...?" as this can impact how the speaker responds.


And remember - practice, practice, practice!

Old habits are hard to break, so you'll need to make a conscious effort to become an active listener. Maybe try spending a week in which you summarise the main points or outcomes at the end of each conversation or meeting.

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