“You have two ears and one mouth – so you should listen twice as much as you speak.”
I can’t remember where I first heard that – but it struck a chord with me. Especially because as an extrovert and lover of the spotlight, I’m far more prone to talking than listening.
But listening is an underrated skill. A good listener isn’t just a friend who lets your complain about whatever’s bothering you. To be a good listener is to be able hear what isn’t being said as well as what is, and a good listener can use what they hear to communicate better.
So how can we improve our listening skills?
Do you watch TV with a device in your hand? How many screens are there open on your desk between the laptop, tablet and phone?
If you want to get better at listening the first thing to do is to get rid of the distractions around you. Listening requires focus.
If someone comes to see you at your desk, close the laptop and give them all of your attention. Don’t try and do two things at once – just stop, put down your phone, step back from the keyboard and listen.
Listen with your body
There’s a lot to be said for linking a physical movement to a mental state. So when you decide that you do want to listen, and focus your attention on a speaker, don’t be afraid to demonstrate body language supporting that.
The body language of a good listener is to face the speaker, if sitting you may want to lean towards them, resting your elbows on your knees or on a table. Look at the person who is speaking, be clear that you’re giving them all your attention. Make eye contact.
Don’t be afraid to make little “go on” encouraging gestures and sounds. You don’t need to be loud or overtly demonstrative, but smile when you agree, or nod a little. Let the speaker know you are listening by watching them closely and reacting when needed.
Keep an open mind
Remember, you’re listening to someone because you want to hear what they have to say. Listening isn’t about agreeing or arguing – in fact few arguments ever involve much good listening. Don’t sit there and think about what you’re going to say the next time the speaker pauses for breath. Focus on the detail of what they are saying.
Effective listening can be very tiring – you’re trying to parse the words and body language of a speaker and attention to that much detail can be very draining. Don’t try to force yourself to listen for hours, your brain may just zone out. Start by intending to listen and only listen for 2 minutes or 5 minutes. It’s hard to do – actions and to dos will pop into your brain, you may start wondering about what you’re going to have for lunch.
Good listening is like meditation – you need to start with small lengths of time, and you need to forgive yourself when your mind wanders, and try to focus back in on what’s being said.
And like meditation, we all get better at listening the more we do it.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels