Thekey to success in any relationship is good communication, but most of us are not taught the fine art of really listening to another person. Taking the advice to listen to understand instead of to reply is very important in relationships with coworkers, partners, parents, and anyone else in your life.
How Most People Listen Isn’t Really Listening
Listening to reply is the standard way that most people communicate. What that means is that instead of really paying attention to what the other person is saying, you are already thinking about what you want to say in response.
Of course it’s great to have a well-thought-out reply, but if you’re thinking about what you want to say instead of hearing what the other person is saying, you aren’t really listening and communicating well.
You may be getting your point across — or not, if the other person listens the same way you do — but you’re not having a meaningful interaction with the other person.
What “Listening to Understand” Looks Like
Instead of thinking about what you want to say while the other person is talking, really listen to them. The experts call this “active listening”, and there are a few different components:
- Pay attention. When someone is talking to you, look at them. Notice their eye contact and body language. Take in their tone of voice as well as what they are actually saying. Really listen.
- Listen with your body. Turn toward the person who is talking, lean in, and make them feel listened to because you really are listening. Make eye contact, smile, nod, and make leading noises (“Uh-huh”, “Really?”, “Go on”, etc.) when appropriate.
- Don’t interrupt. The best way to make someone feel like they are not being heard is to interrupt or talk on top of them. Listen fully and wait until they are done to ask questions or add your thoughts.
- Repeat what they said. Don’t just say what you were planning to say. Show that you have heard what they said by repeating back to them a summary of what you heard when appropriate before adding your own opinions.
- Respond to what they said. Be honest and respectful in your responses, and remember to talk — and listen — in the ways that you would want to be talked or listened to.
How to Practice Better Listening
Becoming a more active listener really does take practice, so how do you learn to listen to understand instead of to merely reply? First, understand that you won’t be perfect at this overnight, or maybe ever, but you can start working on better listening today and keep trying every day to put these ideals into practice.
Start by putting down your phone whenever someone is talking to you.
Turn to them, look them in the eyes, and really listen to what they are saying. Don’t assume you know what they want to talk to you about so you don’t really have to pay attention. This is especially important with the kids in your life, because more than anyone else they need to know that you think they are important.
Respond by repeating before commenting.
This classic therapy move really does make people feel heard and understood, and there are times when it can really save your bacon, like when you’re talking to your boss and you don’t fully understand what he/she wants. This is a good trick to use with anyone in any situation.
Try not to judge.
The hardest part of all in active listening is not being judgmental or jumping to conclusions. When you’re really listening, you need to try to withhold personal thoughts and feelings unless they are requested. Unless they specifically ask for advice, don’t give it. Some people really just want to be heard; they don’t want you to try to fix things. Most of all don’t assume you know more about a situation than the person speaking. “Mansplaining” – or talking down to someone – is never a good idea.
Learning better listening skills is a process, but it’s well worth it because people around you will feel more supported and understood and will definitely like you more as you communicate better with them.