We all know the importance of listening and mindfully paying attention. But it’s not always easy to eliminate distractions or understand nonverbal cues. Yet, thankfully, learning how to be a better listener is a learned skill and possible to accomplish. And as a bonus, it provides several benefits like improved relationships and increased emotional intelligence. So, let’s dive in to sharpen your listening skills for your next social interaction.
Passive vs Active Listening: What’s the Difference?
Passive listening is one-way, where the receiver doesn’t ask questions, read nonverbal cues or provide any sense they’re in the present moment. For example, they may be swimming in a sea of distractions or disinterested in the other party. Therefore, their listening remains at the surface. However, active listening goes deeper. It conveys interest, engagement, and comprehension and involves three components.
- Cognitive. Being mindful of all the information received
- Emotional. Not allowing your emotions to dissuade you from the act of listening. For example, staying calm and managing any arising emotions like anger, boredom, or frustration
- Behavioral. Conveying your comprehension and engagement with verbal and nonverbal cues
How To Be A Better Listener: 9 Tips to Try
1. Ground yourself in the present moment
How often do you wait for your turn to speak? If you do, you’re not alone. But doing so takes you away from the present moment. You’re not able to focus on the depth of the speaker as much. So, instead of rehearsing what you will say, anchor yourself to the present moment. For example, every time your mind takes you away, notice the temperature of your hands or pay attention to the rise and fall of your breath. Then return with present awareness and follow the input and output of the conversation.
2. Maintain eye contact with your body facing towards them
While maintaining eye contact is an important facet of active listening, too much can be intimidating. Therefore, use your discretion based on the comfort of the speaker. For example, maintain eye contact for ten seconds, then break it by observing their body language. Giving them periods of broken eye contact while facing toward them and paying attention to nonverbal cues will relay interest and engagement.
3. Don’t make assumptions
Albert Einstein famously said, “Assumptions are made, and most assumptions are wrong“. And he was right. We often throw out blanket assumptions without much thought. We also assume we know what the speaker will say next which creates interruptions – another no when learning how to be a better listener. Even more, these assumptions are not only hurtful, but they’re often inaccurate. Therefore, to convey your newly superior listening skills, refrain from assumptions and pivot with empathy and compassion. As a bonus tip, after the conversation ends, write down the assumptions. During a moment of reflection, ask yourself why you made them discover their hidden meaning. Doing so will allow you to learn how to improve your emotional intelligence and self-awareness.
4. Ask the vent or advice rule
When a loved one comes to us, we often have a knee-jerk response to shell out a plethora of advice, using our experiences as a foundation. While we don’t want to see our loved ones suffering, we believe unsolicited advice is the solution. However, many want the opportunity to vent rather than hear someone’s opinions or advice. Indeed, venting allows them to release the pain building inside. So, to guide their healing, ask, “Do you need advice, or would you like to vent?” Practicing this mindful technique conveys sincere compassion and makes the speaker feel heard, understood, and respected.
5. Calm your emotional reactivity
It’s common to feel triggered by someone’s statements. Your fight-flight-or-freeze will activate, and instead of listening, your focus will remain on your sweaty palms, shallow breathing, or racing heartbeat. To eliminate this from occurring, go back to the first tip and use your selected anchor to calm your stress response. Learn how to calm your nervous system and take a deep breath. You never want to respond with emotional reactivity causing the other person to become defensive and create an argument.
6. Ask questions
Asking questions is always a beautiful and effective way of refocusing your attention. For example, if you skipped something the speaker said, kindly ask them to repeat it. It’s more than okay to admit your shortcomings and express you weren’t paying attention. We’re human, and we make mistakes. It’s not always possible to be master listeners 24/7. Therefore, ask for repetition, and ask follow-up questions. Even if you heard their statement correctly, asking questions following the end will enhance your listening skills and convey that you were listening with keen mindful awareness.
7. Repeat their words to them
Piggybacking from the previous tip, it’s worth noting repetition is key. In fact, it’s one of the most important tips from this article and a tool used in therapy. To practice, repeat back what you heard. For example, “It sounds like you are saying…..“? Or “It sounds like you were feeling (insert emotion)“. If your reflection or awareness of what they said was wrong, don’t worry. They will correct you and appreciate that you were listening. This tip also keeps you on track to engage emotionally and presently, makes the person feel listened to, and allows a moment for both parties to process arising emotions.
8. Offer nonverbal cues if it feels natural
Nonverbal cues have the power to elicit mindful listening. For example, eye contact, facing the person, nodding, sitting upright, and providing “Hmmm” and “Uh huh’s” help the other party feel heard, understood, and respected. However, there is a caveat. These nonverbal cues may not feel comfortable or natural to you. Therefore, if trying to uphold nonverbal cues creates discomfort, tell the person at the beginning that you’re not very expressive but still paying attention.
9. Be mindful of their body language
Did you know there is a mathematical theory for understanding nonverbal language? Indeed, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, the founder of the rule, states 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken. This fact means that we must pay attention to information holistically. For example, while the other party is speaking, notice their facial experiences, tone of voice, and body language. These components will tell you what emotion they’re experiencing and how to respond accordingly to soften the energy.
Listening is one of the best habits to increase your mental strength and improve your overall life quality. While it’s not an easy journey, learning how to be a better listener is certainly worth the effort. However, remember to go slow and listen to the listener rather than allowing certain words to trigger strong emotions. And, as always, have compassion for yourself. If you make mistakes, acknowledge them, apologize, and continue practicing.
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