I know that listening is super important when it comes to creating strong, lasting relationships, but despite realizing the importance of listening, it's never been my strong suit. I have a lot to say and lots of ideas running around in my head, which sometimes makes it difficult for me to focus on listening to other people. I also tend to be pretty quick when it comes to comprehending what someone is saying so I often want to move the conversation along before they've even had a chance to finish, which, as you can imagine, isn't the most attractive quality in a listener. Over the years, I've gotten better at listening and even though I wouldn't consider myself a patient person in general, I've become at least a little more patient when it comes to listening to what others have to say.
That being said, I still think I have a lot of work to do when it comes to becoming a good listener and since I believe this is an essential skill for creating positive and present relationships, I've given some thought to what it really means to be a good listener. When I think of a good listener, I think of someone who is completely engaged in the conversation, someone who is present and not obviously thinking about what to say next. I think of someone who you really want to talk to because, after talking to him or her, you feel really good, like you really had a chance to speak and be heard. As much as I'd like to be defined as a good listener, I don't think I'm quite there yet. However, I do think I have some pretty solid ideas on how to take my listening skills to the next level...
STAY FULLY PRESENT.
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to listening is staying fully in the moment. Instead of thinking about what to say next or indulging in thoughts completely unrelated to the conversation, a good listener is 100% in the moment, engaged in what the other person is saying. It's common for the mind to wander away from the present when listening (at least for me!), but you can challenge these straying thoughts by creating some sort of mantra to keep your attention focused on the person you're listening to. It can be as simple as "tune in" or "be here now," but having a stay-in-the-now mantra seems like a great way to keep your attention on the present.
Life is filled with distractions, but being a good listener means limiting these distractions as much as possible. For example, one great way to limit distractions is to put your phone away while talking to someone so you're not tempted to look at it (or it doesn't tempt you with it's notifications). If you're not in person, it's helpful to sit away from the computer or TV so you're not distracted from listening. For some people, good listening might require a quiet environment without a lot of people. (I know I get very distracted when I'm sitting outside on a busy street while trying to listen. So many people to watch!) It's probably not always possible to limit all distractions, but a lot of them can removed to make listening easier.
BE OKAY WITH SILENCE.
As Alfred Brendel wrote, "The word 'listen' has the same letters as the word 'silent.'" Embracing silence is one of the great skills of a good listener. You might find it hard to allow moments of silence in a conversation (I'm not very comfortable with it myself), but sometimes silence is a good thing. It allows the other person to gather his or her thoughts and continue speaking. And it also allows you a chance to process what's being said (so long as you keep your mind focused on that and not on the awkwardness of a silent moment...). Sometimes some of the most important insights are gained in moments of silences so it's a great thing to become comfortable with in order be a better listener.
ASK IN-DEPTH QUESTIONS.
Instead of asking yes-or-no or one-word-answer questions, try asking something that will require someone to give you more info. For example, if you're asking someone about his or her work day, try asking, "What project are you working on this week?" rather than "How was your day?" Not only will questions of this nature get the conversation flowing in a more interesting way, but they also show a deeper level of interest in whatever you're inquiring about. You can ask almost anyone "How was your day?" but you generally ask more specific, in-depth questions when you're interested in a more in-depth response. Even in-depth questions might receive single word responses, but often the responses will provide more information, which you can use as you continue to listen.
PAY ATTENTION TO CUES.
Listening isn't only about the words being said. A good listener knows that body language and tone can sometimes tell you more about what's being said than the actual words do. While being a good listener definitely requires paying attention to words, it's just as important to pay attention to how other people are responding physically and through tone. If someone has her arms cross and is speaking curtly when asked about how her day was, a good listener will likely change the subject or ask if something is wrong. Sometimes the cues aren't so obvious so it's helpful to pay close attention, on a day-to-day basis, to the body language and tone of those we speak with frequently. The more aware of the "normal" body language and tone, the more likely you'll be to notice when something is off, making you a more effective listener.
For some, listening comes easily. Those who are patient, who stay effortlessly in the present, who prefer to think rather than speak, generally have little trouble absorbing what others are saying and tend to be great listeners. For the rest of us, well... it takes practice. It's such a basic skill that it seems like it should come easily, but it can be surprisingly difficult sometimes. This week I challenge you (and me!) to try to step up your listening game and have at least one conversation where you know the other person will walk away thinking, "Wow. I really felt listened to!" Listening can be hard work, but it's essential for creating the kinds of relationships that serve as a foundation for a positive, present life.