Listening is an important part of connecting with and learning from others, whether it’s a close friend, boss or family member. Learning to be a better listener prepares us to understand the lives and needs of others, as well as absorb information that might be pertinent to our own worldly experience. Listening is much more than hearing; it requires active — although mostly silent — participation to create a mutual interaction that builds communication, trust, and even compassion.
Have you ever tried to talk to someone just to have them stare at their phone, half paying attention? What about someone who doesn’t seem to have any distractions, but then interrupts you or totally misunderstands what you’re trying to say? Both types are bad listeners.
Being a good listener means focusing on the person who’s speaking, not to interrupt or respond but rather just to hear them out. Good listeners play a more passive speaking role in the conversation, but they actively engage with the other person using body language and follow-up questions. They respect the person who’s speaking, even if they disagree with them and react in the moment without expectation. At the end of an interaction with a good listener, the speaker should feel respected and understood.
Being present means that you’re engaged in the current moment. Instead of harboring on the past (whether your own or the speaker’s) or anticipating what they’ll say next, you’re processing information as it’s told to you. You avoid all distractions, including your phone and other people. This means you maintain good eye contact to emphasize and demonstrate your focus.
If you’re constantly thinking about how you’re supposed to react to what the speaker is saying, you’re not being a good listener. Good listeners don’t focus on what they’re going to contribute to the conversation next. Instead, they listen to process and understand. If you’re having trouble with this, try pretending you aren’t able to react or respond to the speaker. What would you do if you wanted to remember and understand the conversation without verbally engaging with it? You’d be listening to comprehend, not respond.
Like not listening to respond, good listeners use their focus in the present to react on the fly. While the planners among us might be made uneasy by this quality, these moment-to-moment responses will be great if they’re made with understanding. If you’re present, you’ll be able to focus and react with your gut, not with a critical (and often wrong or harsh) mind. Your honest responses will produce an organic environment where you’re more likely to foster better connections with the speaker.
Good listeners go into conversations without any expectations. They’re not attached to a certain outcome, so they’re not going to steer the conversation any way purposefully. Rather, they let the speaker guide the interaction and respond based on how they feel in the current moment. They don’t have a higher initiative, but rather let the conversation flow where it needs to go.
While good listeners shouldn’t stray from helping someone in need or giving their input, they don’t think their goal is to “fix” whatever the speaker needs. Sometimes, the best way to work through a problem is to talk through it—and that might mean no responses from a listener at all. Good listeners know when to offer their assistance and don’t rush to add in their thoughts and risk taking attention away from the speaker.
It’s frustrating to speak and constantly get interrupted. You might lose your argument or train of thought or even get your whole point derailed and forgotten. Good listeners understand this fury and simply listen until the speaker’s finished. If they’re confused, they follow up after the speaker has made their point. Often, initial confusion will be clarified later. If it’s not, good listeners aren’t afraid to politely ask — as long as it’s after they speaker’s finished.
An important part of listening is engaging with the speaker. Good listeners encourage what the speaker has to say and make sure they understand what’s been communicated. They ask relevant questions or try to get more detail. If it’s an emotional conversation, they provide support and ask the speaker about their needs. If it’s more business-related, they may clarify and reiterate the agenda or ask anything they might not be sure about.
Good listeners aren’t worried about getting their say in. Instead, they’re focused on what the speaker’s saying and respond when necessary. Because they don’t interrupt or have expectations of what to say, they respond organically and appropriately. They don’t aim to dominate the conversation, but rather try to listen the same amount or even more than they verbally contribute.
Although they might not be speaking much during the conversation, good listeners show that they’re engaged by using active body language. This may include nodding or leaning in to show agreement or to encourage the speaker to continue. One of the best ways to show you’re listening is to keep eye contact with the speaker — even if they’re looking away, make sure to focus on them instead of letting your eyes constantly wander.
While they might want to jump in with a response, good listeners don’t interrupt and wait until the speaker’s finished with that they have to say. Imagine all that someone has to say fills up an imaginary personal balloon. Listeners don’t wait until the speaker pauses but rather until they’ve emptied “their balloon.” This means they encourage them to say all that they have to rather than rushing to finish the conversation.
Good listeners believe they’ll learn something new from each conversation. They actively listen to understand new information or ask open-ended questions to allow the speaker to elaborate. Instead of having similar conversations again and again, they remain interested and invested and try to learn something from everyone.
This doesn’t mean that every good listener loves basketball and indie movies if their speaker does. Yet caring and supporting other people means being interested in what they have to say. Good listeners are genuinely curious and want to find out more about what the speaker has had to say. They aren’t asking questions to seem polite; they want answers, and they’re excited about how the speaker will provide them.
While they don’t need to repeat what they’ve listened word for word, good listeners respond with a summary that clarifies and processes what the speaker’s just said. This typically comes closer to the end of the conversation to help highlight important moments or illuminate any outstanding issues.
Good listening requires the listener to pay great attention to what others are saying. This ability to focus is a great tool in any situation, whether you’re working with others or trying to accomplish something yourself.
Imagine what it’s like to have someone focus on what you’re saying, without any distractions, and encourage you and engage with what you’ve communicated. You’re likely to feel respected and valued. When you’re a good listener, you connect with others more easily by showing you’re trustworthy, reliable, and supportive.
Because you’re not focused on a specific outcome or expecting anything out of the conversation, you’ll be present — which allows you to focus on the current moment and exactly what the speaker is saying. Instead of letting your head wander elsewhere, you can put all your attention into the interaction and take in all the information you need.
Learning to be a good listener is a continuous process, one that changes based on the situation, environment and person you’re listening to. Although there are many listening opportunities to learn from, becoming a better listener means you can apply your skills across the board, whether you’re in a business meeting or letting a close friend confide in you. Good listening is therefore an invaluable skill, one that not only improves your ability to understand and focus but also your relationships with the world and with others.
Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.