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Becoming a Better Listener
“Listening well is about giving up control. It’s releasing your perspective, holding back your impulse to speak or prove yourself. It’s living in the moment with the person you are listening to and truly feeling their world.” – Brendon Burchard
Becoming a Better Listener
Have you ever been in conversation with your partner or a friend and noticed that you can’t recall what they just said, or perhaps you hear them talking, the words are familiar, but the meaning isn’t setting in? I’m sure you aren’t intentionally tuning them out, but when it comes time to reply, are you engaged enough to offer intentional feedback?
Listening well is a required skill for productive communication. If your partnership or friendships struggles with communication (and to be transparent, many do!), a good place to start is assessing your listening skills.
“Listening” seems simple enough, tune in and do your best to not tune out. But there is so much more that goes into the art of listening than just, well, listening! As a couples counselor and individual therapist, I work with clients on becoming better listeners, and today I want to discuss with you the importance of this fundamental communication skill and tips you can implement in your conversations right away for becoming a better listener.
Struggling to Listen
Listening becomes a second priority to internal contemplation generally for one of two reasons:
- You have personal thoughts on what is being shared with you, or it’s reminded you of a story or point that you’d like to share. In order to not forget your train of thought, you have now tuned out the person speaking and are tossing around your own ideas waiting for a moment to interject.
- You cannot relate to what is being shared with you, or you are uninterested in the topic or person who is talking. Perhaps unintentionally, you have moved on to other thoughts and ideas – leaving the conversation altogether.
Let’s take a moment to look at the first reason for not listening well: personal thoughts/stories/revelations relating to or in connection with the conversation at hand. We are all guilty of this one from time to time and there are reasons why this may happen more frequently or without personal recognition. One reason why people may turn internally and away from the conversation is that they are anxious or nervous about showing up for the conversation in just the right way. Have you ever felt like you needed to form your answer or response internally before you could speak? While this might feel like a good way to set your conversation up for success and share your point of view, it takes away from your ability to fully engage with the person speaking.
Similarly, when you’re listening and are reminded of a great point or idea and you immediately interject the conversation abruptly, it can leave the person speaking with the impression you aren’t listening, or don’t care to hear their full point of view. You aren’t intentionally wanting to make them feel this way, but by not practicing better listening habits you are essentially saying, “What I have to say is more important than what you’re sharing with me now.”
Listening can feel less of a priority when we want to share our perspective or insight. We become quicker to voice our opinions, perspectives, or stance and unintentionally stop paying attention to the person speaking to us.
If you’re anything like my clients who come to me wanting to become a better listener, you’re a caring and kind person and you want to strengthen your communication skills with your partner, friends, family, or others in order to encourage growth and happiness in your most important relationships.
So, how do you know if this is an area of strength or one of weakness? And how can you become a better listener? Read on for more!
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Listening is a skill that takes practice. You’re not going to go into one coaching session and walk out as a professional listener. You’re going to have to put in the work. In my work with therapy and coaching clients, how to listen effectively feels challenging for many. [Curious if you're a bad listener? Here are 10 Signs You're a Bad Listener.]
What I think we miss early in life is how to be aware of what is going on in our present moment, both internally and externally. We have this amazing brain that sets us apart from everything else, but sometimes, we can be so stuck in our heads that we find ourselves working mostly on autopilot. We may be focusing on something we did or trying to prepare for something we need to get done and because of this, we can forget to intentionally ground ourselves in the present.
So, how does this affect our listening skills?
If we are unaware of our emotional state, are stuck in our head preparing what to say, or ruminating on something that happened yesterday, it becomes pretty difficult to be present when someone is speaking to us. Our mind’s ability to multitask, which is something we need, can actually make listening less effective because of these distractions. We learn to communicate from those around us and through that communication, we learn to listen.
To truly listen, understand, and show that we are present in the conversation, we need to be playing a more active role. Intentionally listening to empathize, validate, and understand is not passive, it takes effort, it takes active listening.
The encouraging part of all of this is that you can actually start active listening on your own today. By intentionally practicing your listening skills, you can gradually build better listening habits. Here are a few key skills you can implement today to begin actively and mindfully listening:
Active Listening Key Skills
Pay Attention – Give the speaker your undivided attention. Maintain eye contact, notice when a distracting thought pops up, acknowledge it, and direct your attention back to the speaker, listen to understand – not respond, and pay attention to body language.
Show That You’re Listening – Use your body language to show that you are engaged in what they are saying. Nod your head occasionally, smile, or use other facial expressions, verbal affirmations for the speaker to continue like “yes” or “uh-huh.”
Reflect, Clarify, and Summarize – Your role as the listener is to understand. Our own perspective can often filter what we hear, so in order to put those aside and get to what the speaker is really saying reflect on what is being said and ask clarifying questions.
- Reflections may sound like: “So, what I’m hearing you say is…” or “It sounds like you’re saying…”
- Clarifications may sound like: “Did I hear that right?” or “What did you mean when you said that?”
- Summarize what you are hearing every so often to make sure you’re understanding. There is a lot happening in just a few minutes of conversation!
Defer Judgement – Interrupting can frustrate the speaker, and ultimately, it impacts how well you understand their perspective. Allow the speaker to finish before asking questions.
Respond Appropriately – Be open and honest in your response and share your opinions respectfully.
Mindful Listening Key Skills
In addition to Active Listening skills, I like to consider the benefit of Mindful Listening skills. This is where that present awareness can be helpful.
Check-In with Your Body and Mind – Prior to a conversation, check-in with your body and mind. Did you have a stressful day? Are you carrying any tension in your body? What emotions are you presently feeling? If you find that your mind is cluttered with past and future related thoughts, give yourself a chance to refocus and bring yourself back to the present. This can be done with a few deep breaths, counting to four on the in-breath, pausing, and four on the out-breath.
Cultivate Empathy – Empathy is also an important listening skill as it lets the other person know that we not only hear them, but we are trying to feel what it might be like from their perspective. In fact, Empathy is The Key to Connection and Communication. By being empathetic, you are showing that you can set aside your own lens, perspective, and belief in order to put yourself in their shoes and understand what they might be going through.
Periodically Check-In with Your Body and Mind – Throughout the conversation maintain that present awareness of your own inner “cues” similar to the check-in from earlier notice when thoughts, feelings, or reactions come up that might block out our ability to be present or see the other’s perspective.
Mindful listening is a way of listening fully to the speaker without judgment, interruption, or criticism while being aware of your own internal thoughts and feelings that might get in the way of communicating effectively. When you combine active listening skills with mindful listening skills you show the speaker that you are present in that moment with them, you hear them and respect their perspective and what they have to say.
Emotional Intelligence and Listening
Emotions are essential to communication. The speaker is conveying their perspective through their feelings as well as their words. While we listen, emotions are triggered inside of us as well. Emotional intelligence is recognizing and managing our own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.
With awareness and management of our own emotions, we can use active and mindful listening skills more effectively. If we are not recognizing and managing our emotions, we can often react without thinking and these emotions can affect what we think and hear. Essentially, emotions can control how we react to someone speaking to us. Instead of feeling controlled by our emotions, we can use them to improve our conversations. They can become a tool to better understand the speaker and in turn, make us a better listener.
Practice Emotional Awareness
Recognize/identify the emotions the speaker may be experiencing and the emotions we are experiencing during the conversation. This is where those active and mindful listening skills can be so helpful. Stay present, reflect, ask clarifying questions, empathize. Try to see the topic from their perspective.
The Speaker’s Emotions: Pay attention beyond their words. What is their tone of voice? Something said enthusiastically could mean something different than the same thing spoken out of frustration. Pay attention to the tone of voice, facial expression, and body language to help understand what those words actually mean, and what emotions might be behind them.
Our Emotions: As the speaker is speaking, we will pick up on their words, body language, and tone of voice, and emotions will be triggered inside of us. We might easily identify ones such as annoyance, joy, frustration, or excitement, but others might be harder to identify. Maybe we cannot name a specific emotion, but we feel something different. It can be easier to overlook these cues or even push them away, but they all give us important information.
Reflect the Emotions of the Speaker
Again, we are using those reflective and mindful listening skills here. When you notice an emotion that the speaker might be experiencing that seems relevant to their story, reflect this.
Example: “I noticed as you talked about your new position at work, you seemed a little tense or frustrated. [reflection] Why is that? [clarifying question]”
Example: “You look excited. [reflection] What’s up? [clarifying question]”
Recognize and Use Your Emotions
When a strong emotion is triggered inside of us, we want to avoid reacting without first pausing. Pause to identify the emotion you are experiencing, then use this emotional experience to ask a question directly addressing the topic that triggered the emotion.
Example: If we start to feel frustrated or defensive, use this emotion to craft a question directed at the speaker’s message that roused that emotion.
- “That’s an interesting perspective. What led you to that view?”
- “I haven’t heard it described that way before, can you tell me more?”
Manage Your Emotions
While listening, manage emotions that are triggered inside so that they don’t end up preventing you from understanding the speaker’s message. Managing your own emotions allows you to remain calm and open, which may help the speaker manage their emotions as well.
Managing your emotions prevents you from reacting impulsively. When reacting impulsively, we skip emotion recognition and regulation and are most likely reacting prior to fully understanding the speaker’s message. Depending on the reaction, the speaker may not continue trying to express their message or it could even lead to conflict.
I have found that questions and reflection can really be helpful when emotions are triggered. You are redirecting your emotional energy into understanding the message more clearly. You are intentionally calming your own emotional response by turning your focus on listening carefully to better understand the speaker.
Practice Makes Habit
Practice, practice, practice! Practicing these skills can create a habit. The way we have learned to listen is still something we have learned, so we can unlearn it too. It may take time because we have been listening to respond for so long, but it’s possible. Awareness is key. Notice how you are paying attention when someone is talking, when you are focused on your response over what someone is saying, and if you are quick to jump in with your perspective rather than listening to understand.
Start to recognize emotions as they arise and name them, “Earlier, when my partner wasn’t responding when I was trying to get their attention, I noticed I felt tense and frustrated.” Then explore that emotion, “I wonder if it’s because it felt like they were ignoring me? Maybe that hurt my feelings and instead of being sad I got angry?”
Breaking down these listening skills into small steps can make it feel less overwhelming or intimidating and over time you will notice this practice paying off in your conversations with friends, partners, family, and colleagues.
However, if while practicing these strategies you notice a few are really tough to learn and use, asking for help or more resources could get you over that obstacle. Emotional intelligence coaches can help coach you through the more difficult aspects of identifying emotions, regulating and managing them, and utilizing these skills in your relationships.
So, it turns out there is so much more to listening than just hearing what another person is saying and responding to them! I hope these skills are useful in your exploration of how you listen to those around you and hope they help cultivate presence, openness, empathy, and better understanding in your relationships.
Kara Castells, M.A., MFTC
Kara Castells, M.S., MFTC is a couples counselor, life coach, and individual therapist who creates an accepting and supportive environment for you to find clarity in your personal life and relationships. She is skillful at applying systemic and evidence-based approaches to create lasting change.
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