How to Be a Great Listener: Do’s and Don’ts of Listening

How to be a great listener

Many people work a lifetime to perfect their conversation skills, when, in reality, the skill that makes people feel you’re a great conversationalist is listening. Great listening skills are so powerful that they make you memorable. You will be sought after as a person others want to have conversations with because listening skills are so rare. Everyone wants to talk; few have the wisdom or the skills to listen.

Listening is one of the most valuable skills you can develop if you want to be effective in dealing with people and forming enjoyable and productive relationships.

The Importance of Listening:

You may feel that you’re a good listener, but are you sure that you demonstrate the skills that make a person “feel listened to”? You may wait patiently while others talk and even hear all they say, but is there outward evidence of your listening that makes others walk away and think, “She’s one of the best listeners I’ve ever talked to”?

Few people achieve this level of expertise in listening. It’s a skill that will draw people to you and make them find value in being with you.

Why Listen?

Imagine that I asked your neighbors, co-workers, friends, and acquaintances to name the best listeners they’ve ever encountered. What if your name showed up on everyone’s list? How would that affect your friendships and your relationships with your customers, boss, co-workers, and others?

People may or may not like the person who talks a lot; everyone likes and values the person who listens a lot and who responds in a way that says, “I listened.” Consider how extraordinary listening skills can help you with these key people:

Family and friends. Long-term relationships are hard to maintain through the years, and listening more and talking less is the most effective strategy to avoid breaks in these relationships. Friendships deepen and become more valuable when you make a commitment to listen actively to others. You will become the go-to friend if you’re quick to listen rather than quick to give advice (which may not always be welcome). Even when friends and family say, “What do you think about this situation?” they may not truly want advice. What most everyone is really seeking is a good and thorough listening to.

Your boss. Most bosses feel a bit misunderstood. Listening carefully to your boss before taking action is wise. It is better to understand her vision fully and to prove that you heard her than to give a fast response that may slightly miss the mark and disappoint her. If you take the time to thoroughly listen and make sure you have captured the ideas and details that are important to her, you won’t have to suffer the consequences of disappointing her or getting it wrong the first time. Doing any task right the first time makes you an employee who can be trusted with more responsibility, and more responsibility usually leads to promotions.

The Do’s of Listening:

First, the most important sign of listening has nothing to do with your ears, but with your eyes! Great eye contact is a must, but change your eye width once in a while to show your responsiveness. Widen your eyes in wonder or surprise when fascinating new information is offered (this information may only be fascinating to the speaker). You may have a background that makes establishing eye contact difficult or uncomfortable for you. You must learn to maintain relaxed, attentive eye contact. Eye contact may be broken briefly so as not to devolve into a vacant stare, but some eye contact should be given throughout the conversation.

Second, make listening noises. Do you know the sounds that a doctor makes as he examines you closely or takes a thorough health history? Ah, uh-huh, and mmm. These sounds are called subvocals. Subvocals are a powerful secret weapon in demonstrating that you’re a responsive and caring listener. You can also use short phrases or words such as “oh,” “really?,” and “interesting” to show that you’re listening (use these sparingly).

Paraphrasing and repeating are techniques that also offer your listener proof that you’re listening closely. After you’re sure your partner has finished her comments and it’s your turn to respond, be sure to repeat a phrase she has just said or paraphrase what you think you heard her say. People love to hear their own words and comments coming back to them; it is very flattering to them to know you listened so closely and can repeat to them what they just said. For example, if your neighbor spends five minutes telling you about a new car she just bought, which she describes as an SUV that gets unusually great gas mileage and seats six people, you could say, “I can’t believe you get that kind of mileage with an SUV that seats six.” Those words are proof positive that you listened to every detail. Isn’t that response so much more gratifying than the generic “That’s great”?

Another sign that you’re listening is your body language, particularly your facial expressions. Beyond eye contact, lively and interested facial expressions reflect great interest in the speaker’s words. Sometimes when we’re listening our face goes into “neutral,” giving us a bored expression. This neutral expression could be mistakenly viewed as hostility or negativism, even if you’ve been interested and listening. Be aware that your face is sending a message at all times, even when you aren’t talking.

Be sure to use the speaker’s name as frequently as comfortable, using a warm and friendly tone of voice. Whenever people approach or call, smile and greet them warmly. (Yes, smile on the phone. People can “hear” a smile.) Also, practice the art of embracing interruptions. How you handle the unexpected can make relationships stronger or hurt them. And when the conversation is over, say thank you verbally and in the way you follow up. Send thank-you notes or emails to follow up on conversations. Call a few days later to see how a situation turned out.

Finally, if you’re really listening, you’ll do two things: keep your remarks brief and ask questions. When your remarks are brief, you give the floor to your partner and you spend more time listening. Sometimes your remarks can be so brief that you don’t even need to speak in complete sentences. And asking questions is your way of giving up the spotlight and asking your partner to talk more while you play the role of the attentive listener. People are so used to being interrupted or rushed through their explanations that when someone asks a question, they’re really knocked out!

The Don’ts of Listening:

Now that you know the do’s, consider some of the don’ts of listening.

Don’t fiddle with pen or papers, or use any distracting gestures while you’re listening. You may feel impatient, but hide it. Don’t jiggle your foot or your loose change. Don’t gesture constantly. When energy pours out of you like this, you appear to be impatient and not listening. Not only will your actions keep your receiver from concentrating on your response, but they may send a message that you are bored or annoyed. Maintain your composure and keep hand and body motions under control.

Don’t relate everything to yourself. Do you constantly say things like, “The same thing happened to me one time …” or “That’s just like my old boss, he …”? When you make these types of statements, you’re really finding ways to steer the conversation away from your partner and back to your favorite subject—you. Everyone does this occasionally—the operative word being occasionally. Don’t abuse.

Don’t constantly check your phone or other electronic device. This breaks eye contact and says to your partner that she is of lower priority than anyone who is reaching out to you electronically. Just as you would never keep your phone turned on during a job interview, do not power on your phone during any conversation.

Don’t be guilty of clipping. When your words follow closely on the heels of the last syllable of your partner, she feels “clipped.” You would probably never actually interrupt. You may, however, wait with great patience until the last syllable is out of the other person’s mouth and then jump in with your pent-up comment. You are like a dam bursting as you pour out the thoughts that have gone through your mind as your partner talks. (Clipping is closely related to scriptwriting.)

Don’t abruptly change topics when someone is talking to you. This is like leapfrogging from one lily pad to the next. It shows no interest on your part in the current conversation. At least make a responsive statement or two about your partner’s input. You can then try to link the current topic to the one you want to change to with a transitional statement.

You aren’t born a great listener; you become one. Either someone, such as a forward-thinking parent, trains you or you train yourself. Listening is a skill anyone can acquire with a bit of patience and a sense of purpose to do a few necessary things.

Source: Casey Hawley (2014) Idiot’s Guides: People Skills

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