Most communicators think they are good listeners and even pride themselves on being great at active listening.
I mean, communications is what you do after all, right?
Of course, you are great at active listening.
Most communicators are good talkers, but few are good listeners.
While I have zero scientific research to provide data around this observation, I’m willing to bet many of you will agree.
The endless distractions of our modern world do not help the problem.
Be honest with yourself: think about your last three phone calls or video conferences.
Did you check your email, look at something online, or otherwise engage simultaneously in something that was not part of the conversation?
If so, you might have heard the conversation, but you certainly were not actively listening to it.
You Cannot Multitask
It’s not possible for our brains to do so.
You can switch from task-to-task quickly and organize them in your frontal lobe in a way to keep track of information, but you can’t multitask.
By default, that also means you can’t truly and completely listen while you engage in other information-consuming activities (such as email or texting).
Active listening is not an implied skill. It’s a crucial part of a communicator’s job—and something that must be prioritized and practiced consistently.
The Difference Between Active Listening and Hearing
Before we get into how to test and develop your active listening skills, we need to clarify something that’s often a major point of confusion (and why most people think they are good listeners when they actually are not).
Active listening and hearing are not the same things.
Hearing is the ability to pick up sound. You can hear a conversation, understand the words and sentences, and be able to recite back what was said.
Active listening requires critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence.
Active listening demands that you hear what is said and listen for the meaning of the words. It encompasses word and sentence recognition, as well as intent.
This is why when it comes to communications, true active listening is crucial.
People will almost always tell you what they need, but it’s not something you’ll hear.
It’s only something you’ll pick up on if you are a good listener.
Are You a Good Listener?
So are you a good listener?
There are many tests you can take to evaluate your listening skills.
The struggle with these is when you are consciously testing your skills, you are going to respond and act differently than you do on a normal basis.
My very non-scientific suggestion for a quick and easy self-assessment is to ask yourself this one question:
Do people tell you personal and private things about them without being prompted or encouraged?
- Do you go to the grocery store and get caught with the cashier telling you a story about how her boyfriend cheated on her or his dog is sick?
- Have you ever been in a business meeting and have the other person suddenly divert and start to tell you information with a level of intimacy beyond the context of the relationship at that time?
- Do you have people spill out their guts to you and then suddenly stop and say, “I’m not sure why I told you all of that”?
If you do, you are probably a good listener.
On the other hand, if you never seem to have anyone open up to you, even those who are close to you, this is normally a sign you are not the best listener.
People desperately need someone to listen to them. Someone who they feel can understand what they are going through.
Only a good listener can.
It’s a natural human instinct to pick up on and be attracted to good listeners.
In turn, good listeners are bombarded by information from people who need to share.
The Four Types of Active Listening
There are four types of listening that are crucial for communicators:
- Informational listening: listening to learn
- Relationship (or empathetic) listening: listening to understand the other person
- Critical listening: listening for critical thinking or to apply critical judgment
- Discriminative listening: listening for meaning (this type of listening encompasses non-verbal cues, when possible, as well).
I could write an entire article breaking down the details of these four types of active listening.
How to Become a Better Listener
So how do you become a better listener?
Here are the areas I focus on to constantly try to improve my active listening skills and become a better listener.
Disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist, I don’t even play one on TV (although if someone wants to hire me to play a psychologist on TV, I’d be open. Please call my agent).
These tips are really just how I try to think about active listening.
Pretend You Are on a Scavenger Hunt
Ever been on a scavenger hunt?
You get clues, which lead you to more clues. Which eventually lead you to your goal.
Active listening is like that.
You always only get part of the information from what people say (just like the scavenger hunt clue only gives you a part of the story).
It’s your job to put together context, nuance, and use your emotional intelligence and critical thinking skills to attempt to understand what’s actually being said.
Be a Sponge
To really listen and understand what someone is saying you have to, have to, have to attempt to open your worldview and remove your preconceived ideas or opinions of the situation.
When you put a sponge in a bucket of water, it doesn’t block out the water molecules it doesn’t agree with.
It absorbs it all.
To do this, you need to check yourself (don’t wreck yourself).
And it often is not fun to do this.
- What ideas or perceptions are you going into the conversation with?
- How can you open yourself up to accept new possibilities that don’t align with your current worldview?
It’s not easy, and it’s a skill that only gets better with self-awareness and practice.
Something that I find helps, especially if I have clear opinions and thoughts about something, is to find the flaws in my perspective. I question myself before the start of the conversation.
What if I’m completely wrong? What if I am viewing this situation from a false vantage point?
When you start consistently questioning yourself this way, you open your brain up to see a more encompassing view and listen to what others say.
You know that feeling when you’ve been stuck in meetings or running around all day and are famished?
You FINALLY can eat, and you can barely control your hunger to get food on a plate.
Take that same feeling and apply it to active listening.
Be hungry for every ounce of info you can devour from the conversation.
People are interesting.
How their inflections give away their feelings.
The way they act when they are nervous or insecure.
How they talk about things they are proud of.
What they do when what they say doesn’t align with what they think.
People are really, really fascinating to listen to.
And if you approach each conversation hungry to learn about them and from them, it will change the way you listen to what they say.
Put Away Distractions
This is straightforward.
Active listening—true listening—requires you to be present.
Turn off your phone. Silence your notifications. Do whatever you need to eliminate distractions and focus on the conversation at hand.
If you feel concerned about this please ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I a brain surgeon waiting to be called in during this conversation to perform a surgery to save someone’s life?
- Am I a world leader and must respond to this text or else the sender will launch a world war?
- Am I tweeting with aliens and if I stop they will take earth hostage?
- Am I Batman?
If you can answer “Yes” to one or more of these questions, then you can leave your phone out. Otherwise…PUT.IT. AWAY.
It’s rude. It’s ineffective. And it’s offensive.
People deserve your time and attention.
Give it to them.
The rewards from what you gain when you truly listen are more than worth the trade-off.
What Are Your Tips?
Now it’s your turn. What are your best tips to be a good listener?