How to be a Better Listener
I once went on a date with a man who openly voiced his annoyance with women who, "don't really want help, they just want me to listen." His annoyance seemed strange because it indicated that 1.) he wasn't really listening to women who complained about men not listening and 2.) listening seems objectively easier than solving a problem, especially if said problem is not an easy fix-solving world hunger, say, as opposed to simply replacing a dead oven light. Many problems do not have simple solutions. If they did, us women wouldn't want to talk about them, and we certainly wouldn't ask a man for help. One irrevocable trait of a bad listener is that they are often quick to offer unsolicited advice.
But it isn't just men who are bad listeners. We have all become distracted in conversation, let our personal agendas cloud what someone is saying, or been too fixated on what we'd say next to fully understand and appreciate what is being said now. Life can be overwhelming at times, and sometimes listening can feel like an undue burden. So if you're really not in a place where you are able to listen, just say so. "I'm really sorry but I need some mental space right now. Could we have this conversation later?" is a much better approach than leaving someone feeling unheard.
The first, most important step to being a better listener is to shut the fuck up. But if may also behoove you to:
Get rid of distractions: Your phone, your laptop, music, etc. Nearly anything can be a distraction, so eliminate things that may take you away from the conversation. Don't check your email, text, or stare over the speaker's shoulders. Being fully in the moment will allow you to recognize body language and other nuances you may miss otherwise, and in missing nuance, you miss half of what someone is trying to tell you. Effective listeners not only understand the literal meaning of what's being said, but also understand tone, inflection, and non-verbal cues.
Don't bring an agenda: We all know someone who asks you how your weekend was, only because they want to talk about their weekend. That's talking with an agenda, and it's unilaterally gross. Joel Peterson, the chairman of JetBlue Airways and founder of Peterson Partners, says that to be a good listener, “You have to really be at home with yourself. If you have a driving need to show off or be heard or whatever, then that kind of overwhelms the process. If you’re really grounded and at home with yourself, then you can actually get in the other person’s world, and I think that builds trust.” Having an agenda deteriorates trust and shuts down open, empathetic communication.
Show that you're listening: In 1957, two American psychologists, Carl Rogers and Richard Farson, coined the term “active listening," in a paper by the same name. The term has been gently folded into our collective vernacular, and essentially means: let someone know that you're listening. It's exquisitely not hard-nod your head, maintain eye contact, don't cross your arms, maybe throw in some "mhmms" or ask a pertinent question. If you're listening but not showing that you're listening, people will probably still think you're not listening. Make sense?
Becoming a better listener will be nothing but good for your relationships: personal, professional, or otherwise. But becoming a better listener can also be good for yourself, because it fosters empathy and understanding, ignites better connections, makes the listener more self-aware, and creates opportunities to learn something new. Doug Larson said it well enough, "Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk."
P.S. I never went on a second date with the bad listener, mostly because he was terrifyingly boring. Don't be like him. Watch Julian Treasure's TED Talk on listening HERE and watch a snippet from The Office on active listening HERE.