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How to Become a Better Listener

In this article we are going to discuss why it’s hard to listen, why it’s critical to become a great listener, bad listening habits, and finally 5 key tips for becoming a better listener.

Why is it so hard to listen?

1. Speed vs Process. People speak an average of 140-180 words per minute (wpm) and scientists have found we can process 400 words per minute. That is a huge gap which means there are an extra 220-260 words that we can process when someone is speaking to us. That doesn’t mean you start speaking 300-400 wpm like an auctioneer. However, this means it’s tough to listen because there are an extra 220-260 wpm or distractions that can fill the extra processing power.

2. There is internal interference. This is the interference that goes on in our own heads. For example, if we are hungry, tired, anxious, stressed, in the middle of a project, or we plain just don’t understand what the other person is saying. If any of these things are going on inside our heads then it can be really hard to listen. These internal obstacles create barriers to our ability to listen.

3. There is external interference called distractions! There are so many today. Phones, watches, people watching, notifications, noises, anything.

4. Retention issues. According to TED speaker Julian Treasure we only retain 25% of what we hear. What’s the point of listening if we aren’t going to retain very much!

There are many barriers that make it difficult to become a great listener which is exactly why you should become a great listener. It will distinguish you among your peers.

Why should you become a great listener?

Since most people stink at listening today it is a great way to differentiate yourself from others whether it is your colleagues, managers, friends, family, or anyone else.

Have you ever met someone who was a great listener and thought to yourself - "that person is terrible! I don’t want to spend time with that great listener". No you didn’t. In fact, you probably will never forget that person because they made you feel important. When we don’t listen or we "phub" others ("phubbing" is when we choose our phones over others), people feel like second class citizens. This is what it feels like when someone doesn’t listen.

It is critical to become a great listener because you can make another person feel special, it helps you learn, it differentiates you, it will help your life relationships, and more. Listening drives true understanding, it shows respect, and if you listen to someone else, they will likely listen to you. There are so many other reasons but let's stop it there.

Ten bad listening habits.

1. Tuning people out

2. Interrupting

3. Making it about you. This is when you listen to respond instead of listening to understand.

4. Avoiding eye contact

5. Multi-tasking such as being on your phone

6. Ignoring what you don’t understand

7. Day dreaming

8. Rushing the speaker with your body language

9. Thinking about anything else but what is being said

10. Finishing the other person’s sentence

The key question: how do we become better at listening?

1. Make a decision to be a great listener. Who has said they are bad at remembering names? We’ve all said it. What’s the problem? It gives us permission to not even try. After all, we are bad at remembering names so what’s the point in even trying. The reason we are bad at remembering names is because we are lazy and we give ourselves permission to forget. If we met someone who was important then we sure would remember their name. Therefore, remembering names is not about skill, it is about effort. The same goes with listening- it is about effort not skill. If we say we are bad at listening then it gives us permission to not even try. Instead, I challenge you to say you are a great listener and make an active decision to become a better listener. After making an active decision to be a better listener you will start making an effort and that is the single most important thing you can do to improve your listening skills.

2. Eliminate distractions. If you are distracted then remove the distraction such as putting your phone away. If you are distracted by other people when conversing 1:1 then eliminate distractions by picking one point on the speaker’s face to focus on such as their eye lashes or the bridge of their nose. This will help you focus on the speaker. If you are speaking over the phone instead of in-person then close your eyes which will eliminate visual stimulation and help you focus on the speaker. Eliminate any distractions so you can focus on listening.

3. Set a goal. At the beginning of the day pick a goal such as, "I will consciously listen for 5 minutes today." Then slowly increase your goal everyday. You can pick another goal such as, "every time I am in a conversation and I have the urge to speak I will pause for an extra 1-2 seconds to ensure the other person is finished speaking. Listening goals will help you focus and make sure to quantify your listening goal.

4. Keep a journal and rate yourself. Rate yourself 1 to 5 when you listen to others throughout the day. For example, if you are in three meetings at work and then you speak with your significant other at dinner, rate yourself in those four interactions. You can pick any rating scale such as 5 for amazing and 1 for crappy. For each of your three meetings rate yourself and do the same for your dinner with your significant other. After a week, look at your trend and if you want to write notes as to why you were bad or better at listening then you will have a log. Keep this simple and quick. For example, put your rating or log your trend in the notes section of your iPhone or in a journal.

5. Ask friends to help you. Tell your significant other or your friends that you are consciously working on your listening skills. Don’t worry they will not say that is lame. Most people will be impressed and potentially want to join you. Ask them if they would be willing to give you real time feedback when they are conversing with you. For example, you can say: "would you mind telling me if I am doing something that makes me come across as a terrible listener such as using my phone. This will help me improve. On other hand if I am doing anything that makes me come across as a really good listener then feel free to mention it. This would really help me because I would like to improve my listening skills." I would pick people you trust and make it easy for them to give you feedback.

Bonus idea Watch Julian Treasure’s Ted talk on 5 ways to listen better. In the TED talk he gives great tips such as practice 2-3 minutes of silence a day.

I encourage you to pick one thing you are going to do to be a better listener over the next week and add it to your to do list. Make a conscious effort everyday and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can improve. Remember, listening is one of the most powerful tools to making someone feel special, important, and respected. Make an effort to be a better listener because so few people are.

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