How to Be a Better Listener
“I can’t connect with my staff,” she exhaled. “They come to me and complain. I tell them what to do—and they still won’t do it.”
She didn’t need to describe her frustration to me. I could hear it in the tone of her voice; I could see the way her jaw clenched her words as she held onto her composure.
The woman sitting next to me interjected with some well-meaning advice. I sat back and listened, focusing on the words that weren’t being said. I had seen this problem before: Only a few years ago, I was both the frustrated woman talking and the one providing stacked pieces of advice, hoping the next thing I would say was the perfect solution. If it wasn’t, that was OK, too, because I also loved the sound of my own voice.
Related: How to Speak Well… and Listen Better
When the conversation fell silent, I asked the frustrated woman if she would like some advice—because the moment we ask if advice is appreciated, the receiver automatically considers if they are receptive to it in that moment.
If she wasn’t up for my advice, hopefully she would say so, but in this case, she said she was. So I explained to her the three different types of listening levels.
As a passive listener, you have an awareness of the conversation going on around you, but you are not fully engaged in the speaker. In these conversations, you, the listener, are attentive just enough to respond and add your own commentary. Maybe you’re multitasking or maybe your mind is focused on other things while the conversation is going on, but you are not fully present in the moment. So this conversation, like most conversations, cannot move past surface level.
As an active listener, you are starting to become engaged in the speaker, and you will sometimes reiterate their language to prove your understanding or ask open-ended questions that keep the conversation going. There is typically eye contact and some matching of body language (such as head nodding, smiling and arm placement) between you and the speaker. But sometimes your thought process strays to the next question before you’re finished listening to the answer to the previous one. You are not yet fully engaged in the moment.
As a global listener, you and the conversation are focused on the speaker. You, the listener, are fully present—eye contact is strong and body language is synchronized. There are greater uses of pauses during the flow of conversation to allow the speaker a moment to reflect and complete their thought process. Even if you are not talking in person, you will feel emotional shifts as tone, word inflections and pauses dance their way through the conversation. Now you are fully engaged in the moment.
The Mindfulness of Listening
You can increase your skills as a listener by becoming more aware of what your mind is focused on outside of the conversation. The moment you find yourself thinking about anything else other than the topic at hand, take a moment to breathe and bring your focus back. As you increase your awareness, you may notice your natural body language and tone begin to match that of the speaker’s.
As your listening starts to improve, conversations will become deeper; more involved; and sometimes even shorter in length, as the use of appropriate pauses allows the speaker to complete entire thoughts before being questioned. With the speaker doing a majority of the talking, there will be far less back and forth and more pointed questions from you, the listener.
You’ve heard this before: “If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one to hear it, does it still make a sound?” For many people, if they don’t feel heard, they may wonder if it was even worth saying.
Much like the story above.
Likely the woman’s employees didn’t feel truly listened to as she rambled off advice. In fact, they were probably never receptive to advice in the first place (she never asked)—so, not surprisingly, nothing changed. But once the woman realized they were seeking a listening ear, she started saying less and listening more. The focus shifted from herself to her employees, and now she inspires creativity instead of giving orders, letting them talk through creating solutions for themselves—as she listens intently.