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10 Ways To Improve Your Listening Skills

by Tony Alessandra, Ph.D.

Most of us have room for improvement in our listening techniques. I encourage you to practice the methods I've just described in your very next conversation. Like anything new, they won't feel natural until you've used them a lot. But do so, and you'll definitely be on your way to improving this aspect of your charisma. Meanwhile, here are some further ideas on ways to make active listening easier for you:

1. Listen-really listen-to one person for one day.

Choose one person you could relate to better. Commit to listening to them-not just hearing them-for one day. After each meeting, ask yourself: Did I use the CARESS techniques? Did I really make an effort to go beyond superficialities? Did I observe verbal, vocal, and visual clues? Did I note what was not being said as well as what was said?

Once you've gotten into this habit of nudging yourself to listen better, extend this exercise to successive days, then to other acquaintances as well. Listening well is a gift you can give to others. It'll cost you nothing, but it may be invaluable to them.

2. Create a receptive listening environment.

Turn off the TV. Hold your calls. Put away your spread sheets and silence your computer. When listening, forget about clipping your nails, crocheting, solving crossword puzzles, or snapping your chewing gum. Instead, try to provide a private, quiet, comfortable setting where you sit side by side with others without distractions. If that's not possible, perhaps suggest a later meeting in a more neutral, quieter environment.

The point is to make your partner feel like you're there for him or her. Don't be like the boss who put a desk-sized model of a parking meter on his desk, then required employees to feed the meter-10 cents for every 10 minutes of conversation. What a signal he was sending out!

3. Don't talk when I'm interrupting.

If someone else is interrupting, avoid the temptation to reply in kind. It'll just raise the level of acrimony and widen the gulf between you. Instead, be the one who shows restraint by listening to them, then quietly, calmly, taking up where you left off.

"If you're talking, you aren't learning," President Lyndon Johnson used to say. And by showing more courtesy than your adversary, you will be quietly sending a message as to how you both ought to be acting.

4. Don't overdo it.

Sometimes newcomers to the skill of listening can get carried away. They know they're supposed to have eye contact, so they'll stare so much the speaker will feel intimidated. Taught to nod their heads to show they're understanding, they'll start bobbing like sailboats on a rough sea. Having learned to project appropriate facial expressions while listening, they'll look as if they're suffering gastric distress.

Eventually, the speaker figures out that the other person recently attended a "listening" seminar or read a book on the subject. But it all comes across as artificial. All good things, including listening, require moderation and suitable application. Too much exaggerated listening is just as bad as, if not worse than, none at all.

5. Practice mind-mapping.

An excellent method for note taking is "mind-mapping." This free-form technique helps you take notes quickly without breaking the flow of the conversation. Essentially, you use a rough diagram to connect primary pieces of information, then break it into appropriate subtopics or details.

It's extremely helpful and easy to use, and not at all like the old-fashioned Roman-numeral kind of outlining you probably learned in school. If you want to know more, I recommend an excellent book: Tony Buzan's The Mind Map Book.

6. Be alert to your body language.

What you do with your eyes, face, hands, arms, legs, and posture sends out signals as to whether you are, or aren't, listening to and understanding what the other person is saying. For example, if you noticed someone you were talking to doing the following, what would you think?

  • Glancing sideways
  • Sighing
  • Yawning
  • Frowning
  • Crossing arms on chest
  • Looking at the ceiling
  • Cleaning fingernails
  • Cracking knuckles
  • Jingling change or rattling keys
  • Fidgeting in chair

You'd very quickly get the impression-wouldn't you?-that no matter what words come from this person's mouth, he or she actually has zero interest in what you're talking about and wishes you'd just go away. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "What you are is shouting so loud, I can't hear what you are saying." Conversely, consider these mannerisms:

  • Looking into your eyes
  • Smiling frequently
  • Raising eyebrows periodically
  • Grinning at appropriate moments
  • Using expressive hand gestures when speaking
  • Keeping eyes wide open
  • Licking lips
  • Tilting head
  • Leaning toward you

This person shows interest in you and what you're saying. In addition, the active listener usually acknowledges the speaker verbally with such comments as "I see," "Uh-huh," "Mmmm," or "Really?"

Some people are contact-oriented, while others are much less so, preferring more space between them and the person they're talking to. You'll be a better listener if you honor those spatial preferences.

Again, when you acknowledge the other person both verbally and nonverbally, you build trust and increase rapport. And you'll probably learn something, too!

7. Abstain from judging.

As someone once advised, "Grow antennae, not horns." If you prejudge someone as shallow or crazy or ill-informed, you automatically cease paying attention to what they say. So a basic rule of listening is to judge only after you've heard and evaluated what they say. Don't jump to conclusions based on how they look, or what you've heard about them, or whether they're nervous.

In fact, maybe a good exercise would be to go out of your way to listen to a difficult speaker. Maybe he talks with a thick accent. Or talks much more rapidly, or more slowly, than you, or uses a lot of big words. Whatever difficulty this speaker poses, seize it as an opportunity not to prejudge but to practice your listening skills. Given some time, you'll become more comfortable and effective in listening to diverse styles.

8. Listen with empathy.

No matter how outrageous, inconsiderate, false, self-centered, or pompous the person you're talking to is, remember: He or she is simply trying to survive, just like you. We all deal with similar physical and psychological concerns. Some of us just have better survival strategies than others.

Listening with empathy means asking yourself, "Where is this person's anger coming from?" "What is he or she asking for?" "What can I do that's reasonable and noncondemning?" You're not everyone's shrink, and you don't have to carry the weight of the world on your back.

But, on the other hand, if you can think through what makes this person behave like this, perhaps you'll be inclined to cut them a little slack. Genuinely listening well is, at its heart, an act of love, and as such, may help heal.

9. Be sensitive to emotional deaf spots.

Deaf spots are words that make your mind wander or go off on a mental tangent. They automatically produce a mental barrier that impedes listening. Everybody is affected that way by certain words.

For example, a speaker giving a talk to savings-and-loan personnel kept saying, "bank." To members of that industry, banks and S&Ls are very different things and so each reference to them as "bankers" irritated the audience and aroused emotions that temporarily derailed their listening.

So be alert to what your own deaf spots are and make adjustments. And try to find out what raises the hackles of other people, then avoid those words so as to raise the likely level of listening.

10. Create and use an active-listening attitude.

Learning to be an active listener is like learning to be an active jogger. It takes effort. You start little by little and work upward. It's as much a state of mind as a physical activity. Besides, as you work longer and get better, it pays ever-increasing benefits.

An active-listening attitude can help tremendously in breaking your poor listening habits. Exercising such an attitude means:

  • Appreciating that listening is as powerful as speech. What someone says to you is just as critical as what you have to say to them.
  • Realizing that listening saves time and effort. Those who listen create fewer mistakes, fewer misunderstandings, and fewer false starts.
  • Understanding that listening to everybody is important and worthwhile. Look for that something you can learn from each and every person you meet. END

 

 

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