A good listener is always in demand—in business, in social settings and at home.
Wilson Mizner, the American dramatist, said: “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after awhile, he knows something.” Below are a few suggestions to help you become a better listener:
1. Stop talking.
You can’t listen while you are talking. The other person may hesitate to “jump in” to add his or her thoughts to the conversation if you are talking.
2. Accept silences during a conversation without feeling uneasy about them.
Sometimes during silences, you and others get your best ideas that you can then convey aloud. Learn to be comfortable with patches of silence.
Sometimes the other person desires a few moments for silent thought before speaking. If you barge in with your own words, their thoughts may never be expressed to you. Try relaxing, quieting your mind during silences.
3. Keep outside distractions to a minimum.
If the discussion takes place in your home, turn off the TV or radio, for example. Otherwise you place unnecessary obstacles in the way of your own listening and force your guest to compete with the noise. If you’re going to converse over lunch or dinner in a restaurant, choose a quiet one. The constant clink of dishes and loud voices isn’t conducive to good listening or clear thinking.
4. Forget your own problems.
Sometimes “inside” distractions clamour more noisily for your attention than outside ones. You can’t worry about your own affairs and listen wholeheartedly to those of others. Temporarily block your own concerns from your mind and focus your full attention on the speaker. Your concentrated interest is the finest compliment you can give them.
5. If necessary, assume interest.
William Shakespeare advised, “Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” When someone begins talking to you, perhaps telling you about her children or the newest gadget on his car, you may honestly feel neither concern nor curiosity. In fact, you may find it difficult not to tap your fingers, look across the room or down the street where some activity is going on, or think of some quick excuse to get away. However, if you will adopt an interested attitude in what they are saying, concentrating on their words and ideas, your assumed attitude will usually become genuine.
True interest, of course, is the cornerstone of good listening. Without honest concern, listening becomes merely a polite gesture and nothing more. But sometimes interest must be “primed.” The best primer is to assume you already have it.
6. Listen between the lines.
Thought is faster than speech. Speaking is about 100 to 150 words per minute thinking about 250 to 500. To take up the slack, make your listening more meaningful by watching the speaker’s facial expressions and gestures. These are often more revealing than their words. For instance, your friend may tell you of a recent disappointment.
Their words may be calm and mild—perhaps even casual. It is only by noticing the look of sadness or anger in their eyes, the tightness around their lips, or the nervousness of their hands that you can guess the real depth of their disappointment.
7. Don’t interrupt.
This, of course, is simple courtesy, but is widely ignored.
How many times have conversations been started never to be finished because someone switched the topic? Usually we do not intend to be impolite. We are just overenthusiastic to start talking.
Sometimes we are overanxious to show the other person we know how they feel about a certain problem. “That happened to me, too,” we say, or, “I know of another case …” Unthinkingly, we grab the conversational football and are off, telling our own or another’s experience, without waiting for our friend to finish.
8. Establish a feeling of closeness.
The most successful visits are those in which understanding is present. In order to understand another person to a greater degree, mentally put yourself in their place. Imagine yourself looking at the world through their eyes. Try to imagine the way they must look at a certain situation or a particular problem. You will find you are more sympathetic to their views. Through this understanding you both will feel a kinship of spirit. This intangible bond will help them “open up” and speak more freely to you.
9. Be receptive.
A good listener has an open mind. You may not agree with the speaker but judging or making negative assumptions will slow the free-flow of conversation.
10. Keep your listening “alive.”
Good listening is more than merely opening your ears and letting the other person’s words flow through, with your mind catching only an occasional phrase. Good listening is not passive. It is alert and vital.
You feel along with the speaker. When a friend tells you of an illness in their family, you do more than feel sorry for them.
You feel sorry with them. If they tell you about the promotion they’ve received, rejoice with them. Your mind travels along with theirs, through the exciting peaks and the thoughtful plateaus of conversation.
You can add further spark to your listening by occasionally asking questions about the subject your friend is discussing.
These will show your active interest, and will also serve as a springboard for the speaker, encouraging him into broader discussion of their subject.
The philosopher Epictetus gave the basic formula for good listening when many years ago he wrote: “Nature has given to man one tongue, but two ears so that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.”