Humanity has evolved from Neanderthals, who communicated with grunts and points, into having complex systems of language and words that we use to impart information and share ideas with each other. But after millions of years of development, words and the ability to communicate are useless if you don’t know how to effectively listen to them.
When a boss, client or friend has something to tell you, it’s important that you listen to what they say. But listening is easy, right? Just hear the words and move on? Not quite. In order to really listen to, focus on and internalise what you hear, there are a few steps to take. This will help you build better relationships, be a more effective worker and become more aware of the world around you.
1. Get ready to listen
You can’t effectively listen to someone if you’re not paying attention to them. So, the first step is to stop what you’re doing and actively switch your focus to the person speaking by looking at them and giving them your full attention. This is also more polite as it shows you are giving them your attention and are willing to listen and engage in a conversation.
2. Stop talking
Surely it's no coincidence that the world ‘Listen’ is an anagram of ‘Silent’. You can’t talk and listen at the same time. Remember, the goal here is to listen to what they have to say – you’ll have your turn to speak afterwards. Obviously, if you don’t stop talking then the other person won’t have a chance to speak, giving you nothing to listen to. But also, if you keep the limelight on you, then you aren’t paying attention to what they have to say, and at the end of the conversation you’ll have missed out on all the useful information they wanted to tell you.
3. Eliminate distractions
Just because you stopped talking, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re listening. Distractions are everywhere, from computer screens, phones and that poster behind your desk. If possible, try to move away from loud environments so you don’t get distracted by something someone else is saying. Do not look at your screens or paperwork in front of you and put your entire focus on the person you’re talking to.
4. Stop thinking and be present
We have spoken about your focus a few times now, but how do you do this? It isn’t quite as simple as avoiding external distractions, because our own mind and internal thoughts can distract us just as easily. Try to manage distracting or unwanted thoughts that pop into your mind by gently noticing them and putting them aside for later.
Avoid making assumptions. If you get into a conversation expecting them to say something in particular, you’ll end up distracting yourself from what they’re actually saying.
5. Really pay attention
Make sure you give the full 100% of your attention to what they’re saying, and try to be genuinely involved and curious about what you’re hearing. Think to yourself “this is fascinating” and be prepared to lose yourself in their ideas. Think of the person speaking as the only person in the room (regardless of who else is there) and put your mental energy into listening, not on planning your reply. When it comes to your turn to talk, if you’ve been fully paying attention and internalising their words, your reply will come naturally.
6. Listen without prejudice
If you’ve already made your mind up about what they’re saying, you won’t be able to listen effectively. Try to set aside your existing views and just listen to theirs. Be open to hearing new ideas and welcome the unexpected. Ultimately, you may not agree with everything (or anything!) they say, but if you’ve given them the courtesy of your time, you can at least let them speak and listen. Your opinions will form naturally, but try to resist the urge to interrupt or immediately disagree without first considering their points.
7. Listen at a deeper level
Conversation and meaning come from far more than merely the combination of words spoken out loud. A person’s tone of voice can reveal a lot: if someone’s words are calm and agreeable, but their tone of voice sounds angry, upset or disappointed, think about what this means.
Also pay attention to non-verbal cues, such as the way they stand and hand-gestures. Notice what their posture says about what they’re saying. Are they casually leaning on something or are they hunched over and closed off? Being an effective listener means being able to read between the lines and look for these kinds of subtle clues and subtext.
8. Show you’re listening
When someone speaks, it’s usually on the assumption that someone will be listening. If you show that you’re actively listening, you’ll build a better rapport with the other person and they may end up opening up more and giving you additional useful information. Small actions like leaning forward to show interest, nodding along with their points and saying little things like “aha” and “okay” as they go along can show that you are genuinely interested in what they are saying. Be careful not to overdo this, as it can have a counter-productive effect. People may think you’re impatient to have your turn to speak.
When you reply, quickly summarising something they’ve said also shows you were focused and paying attention, and then using their words or phrasing when you make your points shows that you’ve internalised what they said.