How To Be a Better Listener

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image“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” — Stephen Covey

Listening is a skill and you can get better with practice.

But why get better at listening?

Skilled listening can help you connect with others, learn faster, win friends, and influence people.

Listening is a Key to Personal Effectiveness

If you want to improve your personal effectiveness, learn how to listen with skill.

Stephen Covey often said that communication is the most important skill in life.  He also said that empathic listening is the most important communication skill.  So many people in this world, just want to feel heard.

The good news is that you can dramatically improve your listening skills by learning the listening process, the listening types, and the listening styles.

You can also practice specific things to be a better active listener, critical listener, and empathic listener.

1. Know the Listening Process

To be a better listener, you need to know the listening process.

While there are lots of variations of the listening process, I think the listening process from A Primer on Communication Studies to be pretty simple and effective.

Here is a summary of the listening process:

  1. Receiving – This is where you take in information, primarily through audio and visual channels.  Visual cues, such as facial expressions or eye contact, affect how you take in information.
  2. Interpreting – This is where you make meaning.  You interpret what you hear based on context and relational cues.
  3. Recalling – This is where you recall or remember information.  This involves using your sensory storage, short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory.  For example, when it comes to sensory storage, you can hold large amounts of unsorted information for about 1/10th of a second, and a large amount of unsorted auditory information for up to four seconds.  You also might have heard that we forget half of what we hear, immediately after hearing it, recall 35% after 8 hours, and recall 20% after a day.
  4. Evaluating – This is where you make judgments about credibility, completeness, and worth.  You make value judgments about a message or idea whether you think it’s good/bad, right/wrong, or desirable/undesirable.  These thinking skills require personal and intellectual development (we aren’t born with them developed to their full capability.)
  5. Responding – This is where you send verbal and nonverbal messages that indicate attentiveness and understanding or a lack thereof.  You often send verbal and nonverbal feedback feedback while and after a speaker is talking.  While somebody is talking, you might send backchannel cues, which are the verbal and nonverbal signals.  verbal signals might be things like “uh-huh,” “oh,” and “right.”  Nonverbal signals might be things like eye contact, head nods, and leaning forward.

As you review the listening process, you can probably start to see areas where you can improve, or where you can apply

2. Know the Listening Types

To be a better listener, you need to know the types of listening you can do.  The type of listening you do can vary by the situation or context.

According to Kittie Watson, Larry Barker, and James Weaver, there are four key listening types: discriminative listening, informational listening, critical listening, and empathetic listening.

Here is a summary of each of the types of listening according to A Primer on Communication Studies:

  1. Discriminative Listening – This is primarily physiological and it’s when you listen to scan and monitor your surroundings so you can isolate auditory or visual stimuli.  For example, you might use discriminative listening at night when you are walking your dog in a dark part of the yard.  A musician might, singer, or mechanic might listen for aural clues, while an actor, detective, or sculptor might look for visual clues to help make meaning or to find nuances.
  2. Informational Listening – This is listening with the goal of obtaining, understanding, and recalling information.  It requires good concentration and memory skills.  While in school, you might get written instructions, in professional contexts, many times you are expected to take the initiative to remember or record information you need.
  3. Critical Listening – This is listening with the goal of analyzing and evaluating information.  This is especially important during persuasive messages, and you need to identify persuasive appeals and faulty logic (fallacies).  You also need the ability to distinguish between inferences and facts.
  4. Empathetic Listening – This is listening to understand or experience what the speaker is thinking or feeling.  Simply put, empathy means to “feel into” or “feel with” another person, while sympathy means “feel for” someone.  Empathic listening is other-oriented.  Sometimes people just need you to listen to them until they “feel” heard (not until you think you heard them.)

You might naturally be better at one type of listening than another.  This is your chance to identify what type of listening you need to work on and improve.

3. Know the Listening Styles

To be a better listener,  you need to know the styles of listening that you and others use.  You can think of them as listening personalities, or listening preferences, or listening styles.

You can generally categorize people as one or more of the following listeners: people-oriented listener, action-oriented listener, content-oriented listener, and time-oriented listener.

Here is a summary of each type of listener according to A Primer on Communication Studies:

  1. People-oriented listeners – People-oriented listening is where you are prefer to focus on the needs or feelings of a person, and you may not pay particular attention to the task or the content.  People-oriented listeners can be characterized as “supporters”, and works well in scenarios like counseling, social work, or nursing.
  2. Action-oriented listeners – Action-oriented listening is where you prefer well-organized, precise, and accurate information.  You need to hear action.  You want to know how you can act on or take action with this information.  Action-oriented listeners can be characterized as “builders” and works well in scenarios like engineering, construction, or project management.
  3. Content-oriented listeners – Content-oriented listening is where you are analytical and enjoy processing information.  You enjoy learning multiple sides of a topic or hearing multiple perspective on an issue.  Content-oriented listeners can be characterized as “learners” and it works well in scenarios like humanities, social sciences, or sciences.
  4. Time-Oriented listeners – Time-oriented listening is when you are concerned with completing tasks and achieving goals.  You don’t want spare information.  You just want to get to the point.  You may cut people off and make quick decisions when you think you have enough information.

To contrast action-oriented with time-oriented listeners, action-oriented listeners are less likely to cut people off.  Action-oriented listeners don’t mind taking longer to reach a conclusion when it’s a complex topic, or when they need to hear more details that are relevant to reaching a decision.

If you know somebody’s listening preference, you can better understand where they are coming from, and you can better adapt and speak to their needs.

Speaking of needs, Dr. Rick Kirschner (Dr. K) identified four communication needs:

  1. Action
  2. Accuracy
  3. Approval
  4. Appreciation

If somebody needs to hear action, tell them the action you’ll take.  If somebody needs to hear accuracy, elaborate with details.  If somebody needs to hear approval, then speak in a friendly, indirect, and considerate way.  If somebody needs to hear appreciation, then speak directly, with energy and enthusiasm.

4. Become a Better Active Listener

There’s a big difference between speech and thought processing rate, which means that a listener’s level of attention can vary a great deal while receiving a message.

Effective listeners work to maintain their focus as much as possible, and when it shifts or fades they refocus their attention.

A simple way is to identify intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for listening to a particular message.

You can prime yourself to be a more effective listener by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. “What are my goals for listening to this message?”
  2. “How does this message relate to / affect my life?”
  3. “What listening type and style are most appropriate for this message?”

Owen Hargie suggests three ways to use internal dialogue to become a better active listener:

  1. Covert coaching – Send yourself advice about better listening, such as, “You’re getting distracted by things you have to do after work.  Just focus on what your supervisor is saying now.”
  2. Self-reinforcement – Send yourself affirmative and positive messages, such as, “You’re being a good active listener.  This will help you do well on the next exam.
  3. Covert questioning – Covert questioning involves asking yourself questions about the content in ways that focus your attention and reinforce the material, such as, “What is the main idea from the PowerPoint slide?”, or “Why is he talking about this brother in front of our neighbors?”

You can also use the “extra” channels in your mind to “re-sort, rephrase, and repeat” what a speaker says.  Re-sorting can help better organize information, rephrasing can help you put things into your own words that fit better with your cognitive preferences, and you can repeat to help transfer a message from short-term to long-term memory.

According to A Primer on Communication Studies, you can also use mental bracketing which refers to the process of intentionally separating out thoughts that distract you from listening.  And you can use mnemonic devices to help you with information recall. For example, you can create acronyms, rhymes, or visualizations.

Being a good active listener really comes down to focusing your attention, reducing distractions, and giving verbal and nonverbal feedback to the speaker that indicate you are fully engaged.

5. Become a Better Critical Listener

As a critical listener, you evaluate the credibility, completeness, and worth of a message.  According to James J. Floyd, some listening scholars say that critical listening is the deepest level of listening.

Critical listening skills include the ability to distinguish between facts and inferences, evaluating supporting evidence, discovering your own biases, and listening beyond the message.

Facts are widely agreed-on conclusions, and they are getting easier to check with online resources.  Inferences are tougher to evaluate because they are based on unverifiable sources.

That said, you can check the strength of an inference by asking the following question:

“What led you to think this?”

To check the sources of inferences, ask the following questions:

  • “Where’d you hear that?”
  • “How do you know that?”

To discover your own biases, ask the following questions:

  • “What led you to to think this?”
  • “How do you know that?”

To think beyond the message, ask the following questions:

  • “What is being said and what is not being said?”
  • “In whose interests are these claims being made?”
  • “Whose voices/ideas are included and excluded?”
  • “What are the speaker’s goals?”

You can also rephrase the last question and direct it toward the speaker:

“What is your goal in this interaction?”

6. Become a Better Empathetic Listener

Empathetic listening is listening until the other person “feels” heard.  For empathetic listening to be effective, you need to be open to subjectivity and you need to genuinely see it as worthwhile.

To be an effective empathetic listener, you need to suspend or suppress judgment of the other person or their message so that you can fully attend to both.

Paraphrase to be a better empathetic listener.  This helps put the other person’s words into your frame of experience without making it about you.  Paraphrasing can also help you invoke the feelings within you, that the other person felt when they were saying their words.

Mirror to help you be a more effective empathetic listener.  Mirroring is replicating the speaker’s physiology and nonverbal signals.  This can help you feel how the speaker is feeling.

7.  Adapt Your Approach

One of the most important things to learn about listening is the variety of listening styles and listening types that other people are using.

It’s easy to assume other people listen the way we do.

Instead, you can learn how other people are listening and adapt your approach.

The more adaptable you are, the more power you have to choose your response in any situation.

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