Listening isn’t the same as hearing someone speak. And it’s not as natural or automatic as many people think.
In fact, most of us make mistakes when listening to others. For instance, we might be more concerned with being heard and voicing our own perspective, according to Mudita Rastogi, Ph.D, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Illinois.
“Often, people come to the conversation with an agenda… When they think they are listening, they are only waiting to get their point across.”
We also might not listen with an open mind. Rather, we might “listen to validate [our] assumptions.”
Listening is a skill, which means that it’s something you can work on and practice. Below, Rastogi shared her tips for becoming a better listener.
- Clear your mind. “Check in with your own internal feelings, assumptions and mindset. Ask yourself if you are really ready to listen.” How do you expect this conversation to go? How would you feel about this? For instance, you might think that you’ll be frustrated, Rastogi said. But try to keep an open mind. While you’ve been frustrated in the past, this time might be different. Put your assumptions aside, and “listen for new or different information.”
- Ask open-ended questions. For instance, instead of asking, “So did you do what I suggested?” say: “Tell me what you decided to do.” Instead of “Are you upset?” ask: “How do you feel about this?” Instead of “Can you do it this way?” ask: “How shall we tackle this problem?” And instead of “So did you go to college?” say: “Tell me more about yourself.”
- Attend to your own nonverbal cues. You don’t just listen with your ears. You listen with your entire body. Make eye contact. Lean forward. Eliminate distractions by putting your phone away and turning off the TV. “Tune into their body language. Nod in affirmation.”
- Confirm your understanding. “Listen, and then relay it back to the speaker to clarify if you have understood them correctly,” Rastogi said.
- Confirm whether they felt heard. Ask the other person if they felt like you listened and really heard what they were saying.
- Consider the written word. “If it is an emotion-laden topic, write down your part, take notes when the other person talks, or send an email.”
- Take a breather. When all else fails, take a break, Rastogi said. “A time out helps you come back with a fresh ear.”
Listening goes beyond hearing words. It’s an active process that requires practice.
It’s also a gift. “Listening fully to someone is one of the best gifts we can give them,” Rastogi said.