In modern life, the art of listening sometimes feels nearly impossible. There are a multitude of things screaming for our attention that distract us from being fully tuned in to a conversation. But if you want to have mutually responsive and fulfilling relationships, you have to work at the skill of listening.
Becoming a better listener isn’t easy, but it is powerful, for our personal lives and our communities at large. It is important at home and at work, in conversations both big and small with loved ones, neighbors and colleagues.
Emily Carter Cox, a clinical social worker, therapist and clinical instructor with the UNC School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry, suggests easy steps you can take to be a better listener.
1. Eliminate distractions.
Distractions are the No. 1 problem when it comes to listening effectively. The ping of your phone, an email alert or other people talking around you can take your attention. So can the thoughts in your head. Different types of distractions require different approaches to overcome them.
Before a conversation begins, make an effort to quiet external distractions such as the television or your phone. If you can’t quiet all distractions—children, barking dogs outside—it’s best to be transparent.
“If we’re aware that there could be interruptions or distractions, we need to let the other person know,” Cox says. “This helps the other person understand your circumstance and lets them know you are still there to listen.”
As for internal distractions, it’s human nature to get distracted by what’s going on in your own head. You can try to clear your thoughts and focus on the person talking, gently bringing your focus back if you notice it wandering, Cox says.
2. Pay attention to your nonverbal communications.
You can tell by a person’s body language whether he or she is fully engaged in a conversation. Making eye contact and slightly leaning toward the other person is an inviting way to show that you’re soaking in all the information.
“Be aware of how relaxed or tense you are. These expressions can show on your face, in your voice and on your body. Crossing your arms can indicate defensiveness,” Cox says. “During a conversation, we tend to notice these kinds of signals from each other.”
People tend to feel most heard when the listener’s body is relaxed (uncrossed arms, neutral facial expressions, eyes focused and not wandering).
Nonverbal communication is powerful, and so is silence, Cox says. Body language can communicate that we are present and open, and it removes the pressure to say the right thing.
“I think our society greatly undervalues silence and the power it can hold. Sometimes, silence is what we need. Sometimes, it’s important to just sit and be with a person who needs to be heard,” Cox says.
3. Summarize what you’ve heard.
When the person you’re talking to pauses or signals that he or she wants feedback, it can help to summarize what you’ve heard. It’s a way of showing understanding and empathy, especially when the speaker is expressing something that is meaningful.
“For example, if you have a friend who is talking about how they’re overwhelmed right now, you can respond by saying, ‘Whoa, I see how you’ve been feeling so stressed lately. There’s so much on your plate when juggling that many projects. I get it.’ This is a way of solidifying that, ‘Yes, I hear you. I understand what you’re saying,’” Cox says.
4. Know when—and when not—to interrupt.
The most difficult component to listening is waiting to respond. The art of listening gets lost in this because when a person is ready to interrupt, he or she is no longer listening but is ready to give an opinion whether it’s time to or not. The person is no longer listening to understand; instead, he or she is listening to react.
“Sometimes when you feel the urge to interrupt, ask yourself, ‘Do I really need to do this? Does this statement contribute to the conversation?’” Cox says.
Interrupting can be impolite and have a negative impact on the conversation. Patiently waiting for your turn to speak is an opportunity to show respect, whether you’re having a friendly chat or engaging in a debate or difficult conversation.
5. Know when to ask questions.
Asking a question is OK if you would like to have a better understanding of the other person’s story or point of view. Sometimes a conversation can become so convoluted that you may need a breakdown of key points. Asking questions can show that you are fully invested in the conversation and would like to know more.
However, if you ask people to repeat themselves over and over, it blatantly shows that you weren’t listening at all. This can alienate the speaker and harm the relationship.
6. Keep practicing.
Poor listening can damage and even ruin relationships between partners, family members, friends and colleagues.
“Not being well listened to can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. A person can feel not important or valued, and eventually it can lead to hostility or conflict,” Cox says.
Listening is a muscle we have to constantly exercise. By listening, you can create understanding, empathy, compassion and connection. By becoming a better listener, you can make a change in your daily relationships, the community and beyond.
If you would like help with your communication skills and relationships, consider seeing a therapist. Find one near you. Many therapists are offering virtual visits.