If you can listen to someone and repeat back everything they said, are you an excellent listener? Effective listening is about more than being a passive mirror—it’s about being a thought partner and actively supporting the other person.
The best thought partners put the speaker at ease and help them build clarity around the topics discussed. Research shows that when a speaker receives excellent listening they develop greater attitude complexity, which includes an increased ability to see their strengths and weaknesses, reduced defensiveness, and less extreme viewpoints.
Listening is beyond nodding and paraphrasing
Consider the following practices to refine your listening skills.
- Be aware of facial expressions, gestures, posture, eye contact. Your physical position communicates a lot about whether or not you’re interested in what the other person has to say. Crossing arms can appear defensive, while leaning toward the other person expresses caring and a desire to engage. Eye contact is also important—looking away or at a computer screen during a conversation shows your mind is elsewhere.
- Absorb physical and emotional content. The majority of what’s being communicated is not through what the other person is saying, but through their accompanying nonverbal cues and tone of voice. Pay attention to these to deepen your understanding.
- Focus attention fully. Remove distractions and give your full attention or don’t engage. If someone approaches you and you’re unable to hold space for a conversation, let them know and set another time to chat.
- Have a reason for listening. Imagine the moment in a conversation where you lose interest. In that instance, think of why you’re there and what you’re looking to get out of the conversation. Is it about hearing the other person out? Is it about helping them find a path? Or are they trying to help you and you need to give them more details? Having a shared purpose in conversations enhances engagement for all participants.
- Challenge assumptions. If the relationship is strong, challenging assumptions can be a powerful way to help the person evaluate their reasoning and see alternative solutions. Be sensitive to the tone of the conversation, actively create a feeling of support, and be careful not to attack or tear down the other person.
- Summarize and test understanding. Take moments at key points in the conversation to confirm your understanding and clarify what’s being said. This also gives the other person confidence you’re following their meaning.
- Create a safe space and avoid empathy blocking. When listening with the best intentions, it’s possible to do certain things that work against building mutual understanding and take the focus away from what’s being said. This includes giving advice when someone isn’t looking for solutions, shutting them down by discounting their feelings or ideas, changing the subject to avoid discomfort, making premature judgments, and asking leading questions.
- Do not interrupt. Listening without interrupting is easier said than done. Avoid cutting someone off while they’re speaking and even experiment with giving longer pauses after they finish a point before jumping in to share your thoughts. You may be surprised at what you can learn when you let someone express their ideas fully.
- Lookout for high-stress situations. Even for strong listeners, being in a difficult situation when stress levels are high can be testing. These situations are where the best listeners differentiate themselves. In these conversations, it’s even more important to maintain centeredness and monitor the conversation for productive dialogue. To build inner stability, attend to overall well-being through practicing meditation and other forms of self development, eating healthy, and getting adequate exercise and sleep.
Excellence in any leadership competency comes through developing a reflective practice. Try taking a few minutes at the end of the day and think back over the conversations you had and how well you listened in those discussions. What did you do well? What could you have done better?
NOTES / EXTRA
- Problem solving. This includes giving advice and analyzing cause and effect and can provide just the support someone is looking for. However, if they’ve already made a plan, they may not be looking for solutions. Start by exploring their purpose, “That sounds tough, how do you feel about it?” to understand more about why they’re sharing this problem with you.
- Storytelling. Taking the conversation as a launch point to go into your own background or recent experiences shifts attention away from the other person.
- Changing the subject. If someone is sharing a personal difficulty, there may be a desire to shift the topic to something more lighthearted (that’ll cheer them up!). However, the person may need to just share their experience and be heard.
- Suspend judgment. When listening, it’s important to suspend judgment and listen to build understanding. When we make judgments early in a conversation, we may have an idea of what the other person needs to understand and start asking leading questions to try to get them there. Better to ask open-ended questions to better understand the situation and then be direct with our thoughts rather than hiding them behind thinly veiled questions.