How to Be a Better Listener

girl listening

I’ve always known my listening skills paled in comparison to my speech. But in recent years I’ve become more conscious of my bad listening. Not only do I enjoy talking but I speak quickly. So even if I do talk for the exact same amount of time as the other person I’m conversing with, I’ve likely said more. The whole exchange ends up feeling skewed.

When you assume…

In addition to my poor listening, a friend pointed out that I have a terrible habit of assuming during conversation. Sometimes this can be delightful, when you finish someone else’s sentence and realise you are operating in perfect synchronicity; mind reader over here! But at least with this particular friend, my mind reading is a little out of whack. Usually I just interrupt and get told ‘you did it again’. Sad face.

While I can recognise areas for personal growth, I also sometimes wonder if perhaps I don’t need to change, I need to change who I hang out with. When I’ve spoken to a few close friends, they’ve assured me that they don’t feel ignored or misunderstood. They like when I talk. God bless.

However, since being the victim of interruption and assumption, I’ve found myself thinking that perhaps I can improve my conversation skills. Because being interrupted? It sucks. Also, there’s this saying: If one person says something it’s an opinion, if two people say it, it’s a rumour but if three people say it, that’s a fact. It’s a good reminder – if multiple people express that something is an issue, perhaps the issue is me.

This brings me to the question: How do I listen better?

The challenge of listening

Listening is HARD. “The average person talks at about 225 words per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute. So our minds are filling in those other 275 words,” says Celeste Headlee, morning news host and creator of the Ted Talk “10 ways to have a better conversation”. Staying present is incredibly hard, even if the person you’re talking to is really interesting.

Why bother with active listening?

Listening properly improves relationships. This family therapist and this study say so. But you don’t really need statistics for corroboration. Active listening comes back to humanity’s key needs, which include the desire to feel understood.

After watching videos, reading articles and hearing from people in my life, these are the 3 key tips I have for being a better listener. ‘Tips’ makes it sound like I always abide by these principles. I don’t. But I promise, I’m trying.

3 tips to be a better listener and upgrade your conversations:

1. Accept silence

This was easily the hardest one for me. Allow for quiet moments? Absolutely not! Silence is bad. That means the conversation isn’t flowing. There shall be no silence in my conversations. To ensure this, I’ll have my comments ready to go for when the person talking finishes their statement. Never mind if what they’ve said doesn’t perfectly align with my pre-prepared statements. At least there won’t be any awkward silences. And if I slightly misjudge when the person has finished speaking (since they don’t fear the odd pause), then I’ll cut across them. It’s not great but better than hideous long stretches where no one says anything.

Obviously this is flawed thinking but, I’m sad to say, it was my thinking. A great tip from GQ contributor, Sophia Benoit, is wait two seconds before you start talking – giving the other person time to add anything else they wanted to say.

2. Remove distractions

Nothing makes me feel as unimportant as when someone cuts me off to take a phone call. Phones are just one distraction that can impede conversations. When I’m at a restaurant or café, I always try to face away from everyone else. You thought I was selflessly giving up the cushioned seat? I was just trying to prevent TV screens and eye-catching humans from stealing my attention. Other distractors include my laptop when I’m on the phone:

“You’re scrolling through Facebook, aren’t you?” one boyfriend would ask.

“No.” Pause. “How could you tell?”

“Your voice changes.”

And perhaps the greatest distraction of all: My every other thought. When is my coffee coming? I shouldn’t have replied to his last message. Wait, when is my dental appointment? Is it today? While they’re all reasonably valid, they’re fairly useless during a conversation. I can’t act on them, unless I want to commit the aforementioned sin of interrupting a speaker mid-sentence to check my iCal.

Do you have ways that you combat this? For goodness sake, comment below. You know I could use them. So far my methods include: Trying to address anything urgent before I meet up with someone and taking a calming breath before heading in to a social setting.

3. Try

At the very least, some self awareness means I can attempt to be a better listener, even if I don’t consistently succeed. By noting intrusive thoughts during a conversation, I can seek to actively ignore them. People like to be listened to and that’s motivation enough to strive towards more empathic listening.

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