Improve Your Listening Skills

Hearing and listening are not synonymous.  Listening is active—hearing is passive.  Want a successful life?  Develop effective listening skills.  The goal of listening is two-part: 

  • Maintain a high level of fidelity between the speaker’s original message and your re-creation of that message.  
  • Help the speaker feel heard.  

Sometimes it’s difficult to listen.  Awareness can assist you in overcoming common listening barriers.  There are two main categories of listening barriers; external and internal.

External Barriers

  • Setting – temperature, poor seating, odors, distance from the speaker, objects you’re tempted to fidget with (your phone)
  • Environmental distractions – Running equipment, music, phones, interruptions, other conversations

Internal Barriers

  • Anxiety – Competing personal worries and concerns (did I pay my car note?).
  • Close-mindedness – You may disagree with the speaker’s ideas
  • Unwillingness to listen to complex or detailed information – Observing lecture on advanced marine microbiology takes work.
  • Preconceived notions – Biases cause you to hear only what you want to hear.  Molding the speaker’s message to conform to your beliefs.
  • Impatience – Sometimes people talk slowly or hesitate.

For most of us, internal listening barriers are more difficult to control than external barriers.  Overcoming internal barriers requires a high level of mindfulness and discipline.  You need to catch yourself before your mind wanders, and detect when you aren’t listening.  You must continually bring your attention back to the speaker.

Overcoming internal barriers is difficult, but it’s not impossible.  With hard work and good strategy you can become an exceptional listener.  Here are 3 keys to managing your listening behavior.

  • Stay focused – Take long deep breaths.  It’ll help keep you from talking.
  • Capture the message – Eliminate external barriers (if possible), and ask the speaker to repeat if you didn’t hear the message.
  • Help the speaker – Put yourself in the speaker’s shoes, and set your ego aside.  Don’t make distracting verbal comments like, “uh-huh”.  Refrain from nonverbal queues like fidgeting, slumping, staring blankly, and nodding in agreement.

You may want to take some time to prepare yourself for conversation.  Clear your mind of all thoughts, worries, and concerns.  As the conversation progresses have enough self-awareness to recognize when your mental concentration has strayed.  Respond to the realization that a mental lapse has occurred by exercising self-discipline.  

Stop daydreaming!

Some of us have a tough time clearing our mind and focusing, so I recommend a couple of specific methods.  First, meditate every day.  Spend 10 minutes a day in silence.  Concentrate on the present moment.  Let your worries fade away.  Next, challenge yourself to learn one thing from each interaction.  Gleaning a valuable takeaway is a great sign that you listened.  

Listening helps you notice things the speaker doesn’t say, and to pick up on verbal and nonverbal queues others miss.  Failure to listen is worse than going into a conversation blindfolded with your mouth taped shut.