Practicing The Fine Art Of Listening

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From the time we learn to talk, many people find the opposite ability hard to do: listen. It soon becomes apparent, though, that listening is crucial to our development. In school, we need to listen in order learn. Our parents incessantly demand that we listen. By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve settled into our behavior — being either a “good listener” or maybe not-so-good listener (and we may have a partner who often reminds us of our tendency).

Two young men talking

Unfortunately, people who have the ability are so rare that they routinely merit praise: “Wow, you’re such a good listener!” Writing for Psychology Today, Justin Kompf, Ph.D., is fascinated if not appalled by the subject. On the positive side, he believes it’s a talent that anyone can improve on, even later in life. “The sparsity of good listeners concerns me,” he writes. “I believe the rarity of this skill is due to a lack of knowledge. If we don’t receive it, how can we know what it is like? If something can be learned it can be practiced. And if it can be practiced it can be improved.”

Kompf recognizes three characteristics of good listeners, and offers some basic advice for practicing each.

Provide Silence. It’s so common as to essentially be a basic human characteristic: thinking about what you’re going to say while listening to someone speak. It’s a temptation that you should resist. To develop the skill of listening, you need to stop thinking and actually listen — which means not talking. “Being silent in a conversation can feel awkward at first,” Kompf says, “but it is the only way to give a person the chance to elaborate on how they feel. It builds trust and gives people time to think about what they want to say next. Often, our thoughts are imperfectly encoded into words. Silence gives people a chance to say what they mean.”

Kompf’s practice drill: Wait “3-5 seconds after someone has said something before speaking. You will notice that they often have more to say.”

Reflect. Turning honest thoughts and feelings into words is tough, especially if a person is covering new ground. To be a truly good listener, you need to take the time to reflect on what the person you’re talking with is truly trying to communicate.

Practice drill: Try restating what you think a person just said and meant. “Reflective statements make a best guess as to what the speaker means,” Kompf says. “Reflections are a powerful tool for understanding. It allows people to hear their words mirrored back.”

Ask Open-Ended Questions. “Answering” a person with a question is often a good way to put the ball back in their court, which encourages the other person to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings. Open-ended questions, moreover, are an even better type of question — they’re the type that cannot be answered with a one-word answer.

Drill: “Start by paying attention to your questions,” Kompf writes. “Do they invite one-word responses or do they further the dialogue?”

If you take the time to practice being a better listener, you just may find your personal and professional relationships taking a decided turn for the better.