How to be a Better Listener

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” —Stephen R. Covey

We’ve all been guilty of it at one point or another. We get so caught up in thinking about what we’re going to say next, that we fail to listen to what is being said. But, when we don’t work on being a better listener, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to connect with others, gain valuable information, and truly engage in the conversation. So many miscommunications result from a failure to be a good listener and really take in what is being said.   

cartoon showing husband and wife seated.  Husband says, "When you said we needed to talk, you didn't say I needed to listen."

Meanwhile, most of us consider ourselves to be good listeners, when in reality, we could all probably benefit from improving our listening skills. And, acknowledging that we need to be a better listener is the first step.

Here are some examples of how poor listening occurs:

  • There is no question that there is more communication than ever today and that listening requires more attention, and prioritization. Many of us receive some combination of more than 100 emails, 2-3 hours of TV, 3-5 hours of interaction with a computer, read numerous books, magazines, blogs, and other papers, 1-2 hours of phone conversations, 1-2 hours with social media, 1-2 hours of podcasts, 2-3 hours of meetings, and even a little social time with our family and friends. It’s a lot to take in. How much do we hear and actually take in?

E-Learning Overload - How can we learn to be a better listener with all these distractions?

  • There is no escaping the fact that biases affect our attitudes and perceptions of individuals and information. While it is frequently associated with demographics, it is really much more pervasive. Aware of the fact that preconceived notions (either of a person or the content being discussed) have a dramatic effect on audience members’ understanding and acceptance of information, many presenters work to actively create positive perceptions.
  • One of the most significant aspects affecting listening is our perception of information. For example, I believe people don’t take enough risk. How much freedom do you allow innovative people to break rules? When do you provide support versus challenging subordinates and colleagues? While there may be analytical solutions to some of these, our predispositions are frequently more important in determining how we respond. Instead of asking questions, being a better listener, and learning more about an unconventional idea, we respond with resistance, usually because it feels safer than taking a chance.
  • The parameters of listening are constantly changing. New tools like Zoom, targeting, social media, etc. are constantly evolving while old ones decline. I am an original AOL customer who received a disk in the mail (how many of you even remember that?) and am in panic that AOL may cease to exist. However, that creates some great opportunities for companies who want to make mostly older customers feel comfortable—that is, if they’re listening to those concerns.
  • People love to talk, but hate to listen. Becoming a better listener is not merely not talking (though even that is beyond most of our powers); it means taking a vigorous human interest in what is being said. You can listen like a blank wall or like a splendid auditorium where every sound comes back fuller and richer.

Cartoon - Sign says "Active Listening, Session 1."  One person says to the other "I'm afraid turn out isn't as high as we'd expected... three of them misheard the date, five got the time wrong, and everyone from marketing went to a hotel in Norwich by mistake!"  We all need to learn to be a better listener

We frequently debate the validity, objectivity, and bias of ineffective listening. However, simply recognizing its existence and making an effort to understand how we can improve is more important. We need to consider the problems and develop solutions.

Want to be a better listener and communicator? Try some of these suggestions:

  • Repeat back what you think you heard. This tactic gives the speaker the chance to repeat themselves if you misheard.
  • Follow Internet courtesy and practices. What we hear is greatly affected by the nature of the communication. Sending inappropriate emails by mistake is not a good practice, but happens all the time. Be courteous and brief. Target the right people and sites. YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn have quite different audiences and impacts. Ensure recipients are getting messages rather than creating spam or complex links.
  • Keep things interesting. In general, the audience, whether on the Internet or in person, forms its perceptions of a presentation in the first 90 seconds. As an admitted nerd, my presentations can be a little statistic heavy, which can translate as boring. Thus, I try to improve audience reception through tools like editors, comedy, stories, and pictures.
  • Keep the audience comfortable. Environmental issues can be the most ignored factor in communication. Licensing agreements, celebrity endorsements, and great environments are all designed to make the audience comfortable with presentations. Frequently, seminars are created with crowded schedules to justify the expense of taking people away from work. However, a poor technical speaker at 1:30 p.m. in an over extended morning session or at 5:30 p.m. after an all day session is most likely going to be ineffective. Research shows that serving food and not being the last presenter help to improve the impression you make on your audience. At one company, we had a motto for our presentations and meetings: “FOOD WORKS.” Fruit and penny candy are truly unheralded aids in making a great presentation.
  • Try to create a “WIN-WIN” environment when communicating. We all know positive feedback is received more favorably and, yet, we revert to criticism, blame, and a one-upping mentality in pressure situations. We seem to follow the common TV format of adversarial commentators that frequently provide more confusion than resolution. Try to keep things positive, constructive, and remember to strive for compromise.

"Most of the successful people I've known are the ones who do more listening than talking." - Bernard Baruch

The value of being a better listener is undeniable. It’s a skill and skills require practice and development. Understanding the purpose, content, and importance of communication can also help you improve outcomes. Because, let’s face it, communication is the key to a lot of things including relationships, business, and success.

Related: Testing Assumptions Can Result in Better Decisions