On Becoming a Better Listener

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“Become a better listener.”

It was one of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of this year, but it’s one I think I’ll have a hard time checking off and calling “done.” Because, when it comes to listening well, there isn’t a point of arrival or mastery; instead, I’m learning it’s something we can always be working on and trying to improve.

  • Being more intentional with our words and not jumping in too quickly.

  • Giving our full attention to the person speaking instead of letting our mind wander.

  • Not assuming that every point of disagreement will (or should) turn into an argument.

There’s been a lot of noise this year, it seems. A lot of sharing of opinions, arguing about ideas, defending people we trust, and putting down those we don’t trust. For some of us, our response is to be silent, to step back, to withdraw.

But silence doesn’t serve anyone. Instead, it isolates us and leaves us feeling disconnected and alone. What if instead of pulling away, we took a step forward in love, with a genuine interest in connecting instead of disconnecting, learning about the other person instead of assuming we already know.

It’s not about sameness: thinking the same way, believing the same things, voting the same way, or sharing all the same opinions. It’s about learning how to listen, to step outside ourselves and create space for someone else to be seen, heard, and understood.

Sometimes, that means talking less. Sometimes, it means talking more. But it always includes listening.

From the day-to-day conversations you have in your personal relationships to the once-a-year ones you have with family members during the holidays, conversations at work to conversations with your neighbors, listening is a skill we can all use.

Here are five helpful practices for becoming a better listener:

Five Helpful Practices for Becoming a Better Listener

No. 1 - Eliminate distractions.

In the world we live in today, this can be a huge barrier to thoughtful, active listening. Our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter and it seems it’s hard to focus on the person right in front of us for an extended period of time. Challenge yourself to try - for the sake of the other person. Put your phone away for a few minutes, turn off the TV, make eye contact. As M. Scott Peck said, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

No. 2 - Pretend you’re a journalist.

The one thing that comes up over and over again when you research “how to become a better listener” is this: stop focusing on what you’re going to say next. This one mindset shift can make a huge difference in your conversations and interactions with others.

Stephen R. Covey noted, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Can you relate? Can you recognize times when you were distracted from listening to what the other person was saying because you were thinking about and planning your response?

Instead, try pretending you’re a journalist. What do you notice or observe? Take an interest in the other person and pay attention to the details of the story they’re telling.

Pretend you have to write down everything about this conversation later. Taking this approach will help shift your focus from responding to asking more questions. Which brings me to my next point.

No. 3 - Ask more questions.

One of the best ways to really understand someone else’s perspective or point of view is to ask more questions. Here are a few examples:

“I hear you saying ______. Am I understanding that correctly?”
“When you say ______, do you mean ______ or _______?”
“Help me understand. Can you explain what you mean by _______?"
“Is there anything else you’d like to say about that?”

These types of questions are curious and thoughtful. They invite a response instead of demanding one. They are gentle and kind.

Again, take a genuine interest in the person and what they are trying to communicate and make it your mission to learn as much as you can about them and the story they have to tell.

No. 4 - Go into the conversation with open palms.

Place your hands in your lap, palms up. Open and vulnerable, not closed and defensive, ready to throw the first punch, as it were. It’s very difficult to stay angry with open palms.

Author and communication expert Allan Pease tells us there are more connections between our brain and the palm of our hand than anything else (source). A simple shift in body language can change how we enter into a conversation and how we are perceived by the other person.

"If our eyes are the windows to our soul, our hands are our connection to others.” - Sabina Nawaz (source)

Rev. Susan Leonard-Ray, District Superintendent of the Anderson, SC district of the United Methodist Church, talked about the importance of open palms at a conference several years ago. Ever since then, I have become increasingly aware of how often my hands are closed, especially in conversation. I cross my arms. I stand with my hands closed by my side. 

It makes me feel safe instead of vulnerable. It makes me feel comfortably distant instead of uncomfortably present.

But here’s the thing: We shouldn’t expect every conversation to end as an argument. We shouldn’t spend our time thinking about how to counter or argue a point or anticipating the next jab. Open your palms. Give the person you’re talking to the gift of trust. Receive what they have to say and hold it in your hand, turning it over and around, studying it, looking at it from different angles, trying to understand, yes, but more-so trying to understand the heart and mind of the person who shared it. 

This is trust. This is respect. This is acceptance.

No. 5 - Mirror and reflect back what you hear.

I first heard about this technique from Helen LaKelly Hunt and Harville Hendrix- husband-and-wife psychologist team and author of several books. The idea of mirroring is to repeat back what you hear the other person saying in conversation. That means listening fully to everything they have to say, then recapping it in a very matter-of-fact way, without judgment or getting defensive. This says to the other person, “I hear you, and I’m listening.” 

When I’ve used this approach in conversation, I notice an instant sense of calm come over the other person. They relax their shoulders, they appear less agitated, they let their guard down. This creates space for true dialogue to happen. Isn’t that the point?

As Celeste Headlee said, “Enter every conversation like you have something to learn.” (source)

What are your best pieces of advice for becoming a better listener? Which of these practices resonates with you the most?