How to become a better listener and why it’s important for building relationships

I’m a language teacher. You hear a lot about listening skills in language courses. It’s an important skill to develop, but most of the time, the exercises are something that you have to listen to and write down some important information. That’s fine as a way to test that people have understood what they were listening to, but most of the important information we get from listening doesn’t happen when we’re listening to something where we have no input. It comes from conversations.

We all need to listen

It’s not just learners of a language who should improve their listening skills. It’s something we all need to think about.

Blind people and listening

Let’s quickly use this opportunity to deal with the myth that blind people’s hearing is naturally better. We may train our ears to be more perceptive because we don’t have access to the sense of sight, but it’s not some kind of automatic super-sense. In any event, hearing and really listening are not the same thing. I know blind people who don’t listen well and rarely pay attention. So what I mean is that this whole listening thing is not automatically easier for me. It’s something that we all need to put time and energy into learning and becoming better at.

Listening is not just about hearing what people say. It’s also about what they don’t say, how they say things, what they avoid saying, how long it takes to answer… Information that they thought others wouldn’t pick up on. All these things can give you vital clues as to what they really mean.

So why is it important to listen?

1. If you don’t, you can miss important information

This can have terrible consequences for you if you are at work. You might not have the most up-to-date information, and this may mean that you make mistakes/do unnecessary work/just don’t know what’s going on.

Also, if you’re not paying attention, others can pick up on the fact that you weren’t listening. This might be embarrassing if you suddenly say something that someone else has already mentioned earlier in the meeting. It draws attention to you in a negative way, and that’s the contribution that people will remember from the meeting.

2. It helps to show that you are interested

I sometimes use the example of the student who was really surprised that I remembered what he’d said in our previous lesson when I asked how he was. Someone was ill in the family, so I asked about them next time I saw him. He was surprised I remembered. I was surprised that he was surprised!

But the point is, if you show an interest in people and the things that they tell you, it makes them feel heard and strengthens your relationship. It’s also just part of being a decent human, which should really be the main motivation. If you’re doing it as part of a formula to build stronger relationships, people will see through it sooner or later!

3. It will help you to ask the right follow up questions

If you’re having a conversation with someone, you can’t plan everything out in advance. Conversations are spontaneous. You don’t know what the other person will say, and therefore, even if you have some ideas of what you want to find out, really listening to the other person’s answers will help you to understand and ask better follow-up questions. This shows that you are engaging with them and what they have to say.

4. It prevents small problems from becoming bigger

Sort out the issue before it grows and becomes harder to resolve. Find out as soon as possible if people aren’t happy, if something’s wrong, or if there’s a problem with something you’re working on. If you know about it, you can try to fix it – or at least try to be part of the solution.

5. It shows you don’t think everything is about your agenda

I imagine most people don’t actually think this, but when they only focus on their ideas or contributions, it can feel a bit like that for others in the conversation, and that’s not a good image to promote.

How to be a better listener

1. Focus on the person and their words

This means really listening to them.

I’ve worked in an office where I could have a conversation and keep typing about something unrelated, but if it’s a serious conversation, give someone your full attention. This means not checking your phone, looking out of the window, taking calls, answering emails etc. Even if you are able to listen and do those things, they can give the impression that you are pre-occupied with something else.

2. Listen to learn, not to plan what you want to say next

This can be hard if you’re operating in another language because you also need time to think about what you want to say. But if you use the time while the other person is talking to think about your own next sentence, you will miss things, and you’ll make it harder for the conversation to flow.

3. Misplaced “empathy” is a problem

Sometimes people can be really quick to try and show empathy, but this can come across as clumsy and counterproductive if what they’re really doing is recounting a similar (or maybe not similar) experience of their own. Shared experience is good, but sometimes people need space to talk, and not to hear how you “know how they feel”, when chances are, you probably don’t if you haven’t even let them finished telling you what happened or how they felt about it.

4. Make sure advice is relevant

This is similar to the empathy point, but you can’t give good advice if you don’t understand the problem. Give people time to finish explaining it first before you plough ahead giving your advice or solutions.

5. Be ok with some silence

A lot of people are uncomfortable with silence, but some silence is good. It gives people time to reflect on what the other person has said, or on what they want to say next. If you fill all the time with words, you take away someone else’s chance to think and speak.

Long, uncomfortable silences are something else. But taking a few seconds to reflect or let a point sink in can really help the other person – and you – to move on with the conversation in a meaningful way.

6. make time for people

If you don’t have time for an important conversation, don’t start it until you do. If something needs your attention, try and make time for it. Trying to talk with someone who looks like they’d rather be somewhere else can be really off-putting and some people will just shut down or say it wasn’t important because the other person looks like they’re about to leave at any second.

7. ask relevant questions that show you are listening

Most of the time, the things that people say will give you clues about what to say or ask next. But you won’t know this unless you listen and think about the information that the other person has just given you, or the information gaps that they need to fill in for you.

8. people want to be heard

This is particularly relevant now that more of us are spending time in online meetings, but from my time in companies that had more face-to-face meetings, it’s always been an issue. Don’t talk over people. Don’t shut them down because you think you know what they are trying to say. Don’t patronise them by giving the impression that you know better.

9. don’t interrupt

Following on from the point about letting people be heard, don’t interrupt them either. People do this for a number of reasons – because they want to say something that they think is urgent, because they want to disagree, or even because they want to agree sometimes. But apart from being rude, it’s stealing the other person’s opportunity to finish what they were saying.

10. Summarise what you’ve heard

Is it the same as what the other person wanted to communicate? If not, now’s the time to fix that misunderstanding before you leave and go away with a completely different understanding than the other person. Fix it now before you act on or pass that incomplete/inaccurate information on to someone else!

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