5 Tips to Become a Better Listener

Empathy starts with listening and unfortunately, in current materialistic world, people have lots of time to watch youtube videos but no time to hear what someone has to say
— Sudhir Suvarna

GINA vs. GINO

My friend Gina (not her real name) and I have known each other for a long time. We've seen each other's worsts, traveled to many places together, and taken each other's photos while riding life's rollercoaster to laugh at afterwards. While I'll never trade Gina for another person in the world, I have to confess that our friendship is far from perfect (or far from being almost perfect). Even after we have taken dips at multiple seas and tried foreign beers and enchiladas together, my attempts to exercise vulnerability with Gina have always failed. A few minutes in our conversation I would find myself retreating to the cave I had just come from. 

My friend Gino (not his real name) and I have known each other for a shorter time. We have gotten glimpses of each other's worse, haven't traveled together and definitely have not yet taken each other's photos on life's rollercoaster. While our friendship is still in the early stage of evolving, I will never trade Gino for another person in the world. Sure, we haven't been on a trip to multiple seas and tried foreign beers (he doesn't drink) and enchiladas together (but he eats), but I have expressed vulnerability with him more than once. However, this I must say. Our conversations is one of the highlights of our relationship. With him, I never have to worry about returning to the cave I have left.

Curious, I pondered what made me think my conversations with Gina lacklustre and my conversations with Gino satisfying. With Gina, I often felt conversations were one-sided. With Gino, it was the opposite. Our conversations were always a game of ball, with the spotlight being bounced between us fairly. The reason for the balance wasn't Gino being a good talker. Instead, it was because he was a better listener.

 

THE LITTLE, NASTY DEVIL and SEEING THINGS FROM THE OTHER SIDE

My hesitance to risk vulnerability can be blamed on a few things. Trust issues. Fear. Insecurities. Ignorance. Fear again. The few times I felt the urge to forge a connection with someone, to share with them, I hesitated. I let the evil trick of not feeling heard and being misunderstood get in my way. So I chose to remain in my shell at most times, seeing but never feeling, always cautious and always afraid. I thought, "They don't want to listen. Why should I share?" Little did I know that I had unknowingly taken care of that little, nasty thought. I gave it a bed, a place to shower, and food every day. Every time I was plunged into the activity of conversing, the little, nasty devil would poke its head out and remind me, "They don't want to listen. Why should I share?" So I seldom shared and I didn't want to listen.

Yes. Allow me to repeat that. I seldom shared and I didn't want to listen.

Yes, you read that right. I wrote "I didn't want to listen" not "they didn't want to listen." You see, the hesitation to share because of the ludicrous fear that the other party would not be listening turned me into very thing I feared itself - the other party that wasn't listening. Sometimes I found myself doing a terrible job of listening to others. Why then should I expect others to listen to me when I couldn't exercise that myself? If I expected people to become better listeners then it should start with me first and foremost. I took note of what behaviours I found offensive during conversations that told me the other person was doing a bad job of listening and taught myself to avoid doing them. Then I turned those behaviours into tips on how we can become better listeners. Here they are:

 

1. NEVER INTERRUPT THE OTHER PERSON

@@When you interrupt someone who's talking, you're sending two messages@@: you don't care about what they're saying & you don't care about them, enough for you to warrant cutting them in the middle of speaking. Now imagine if the table was turned and somebody cut you off. How would that make you feel? Disrespected? Unimportant? Unworthy? Communication is both talking and listening. You can't have one without the other. Don't be like other people who only do the talking and disregard the other ingredient of communication. Let the other person finish speaking to show that you value what they have to say and, most importantly, them.

 

2. DON'T MAKE IT ALL ABOUT YOU.

One of the things I observed with Gina was that she had a tendency of making the topic about her, even when it wasn't initially about her. She would talk about her own experience of the situation being told to her (while my story was not yet finished), often expressing that she'd had it worse. Then the conversation would proceed from there, where her story had taken centerstage. 

It's normal for us humans to relate to someone's story by sharing a similar experience or story. It's how we form a connection and one way of saying "I empathise with you. I know what you're talking about." However, you should not step over the line between sharing a similar experience and making the topic revolve around you. @@Shifting the conversation to revolve around you is a sign of disrespect, selfishness, and even narcissism.@@ Respect the other person's time under the spotlight and patiently wait for yours.

 

3. DON'T GIVE UNSOLICITED ADVICE.

When people share a problem with us, giving advice without being asked is very tempting. In today's information age where obtaining knowledge about something is as easy as turning on a computer, most people couldn't help but show off what they know in the form of unsolicited advice. While most of us have good intentions in giving advice, it's best not to shell it out unless asked. Giving unsolicited advice can come across as establishment of dominance, passing judgement, and sometimes a desire for drama. @@Sometimes people just want a pair of ears to listen to them, to vent to, a form of quick therapy.@@ We don't always have to give them a piece of our mind. Sometimes, our silence is all that's needed, enough for them to feel valued and cared for. Only when they give us their permission, by explicitly asking for advice, can we do so.

 

4. ASK A QUESTION. THEN ASK SOME MORE.

A good practice I learned to help avoid giving unsolicited advice is by asking questions instead, genuine questions. After letting the other person finish speaking, I'd follow-up with a question. These three being good ways to start:

What happened next?

How do/did you feel?

What do you intend to do now?

Of course you're not going to recite them like a robot. Understand clearly what the other person was talking about and express the desire to know more about that. If you just ask questions for the sake of asking, you'd come off as fake. You have to be genuine. 

Asking questions show that you're listening. Don't be afraid to ask follow-ups while letting the natural flow of the conversation dictate the type of questions you ask. At the same time, know when to stop, when to let the topic naturally die and when to shift to another one. Otherwise, you'd look like a busybody and not sincere.

 

5. BE PRESENT IN THE MOMENT

And by this it means being physically and mentally present in the conversation. Be mentally present by putting off other mental distractions and concerns away for the time being and focus on the conversation you're having. Be physically present by showing an interested and engaged body language. Don't check your smartphone. Don't look anywhere else. Don't cross your arms. Face the other person you're talking to. Look them in the eyes. Body language is 55% of communication. Even if you respond and speak, if your body language shows otherwise, the other person will still feel you're not fully listening. Get engaged. Give them your undivided attention. Make their time feel appreciated. @@Nothing is worse than spending time with someone who appears to not want to be there with you.@@ Don't let this someone be you!

 

If we want other people to be better listeners then being a better listener should begin with us. Take notice of how you listen to someone during a conversation and apply the following tips above.


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