How to become a better listener: 8 tips to improve your listening skills

This quick guide will help you learn how to become a better listener.

Tips for effective listening: it starts with mindset

You can’t fake being a better listener, your desire to connect must be genuine and it starts with your mindset, not your skillset. Here are four tips to improve your listening mindset:

1. Be interested in other people.   How many people do you meet who are only interested in themselves, their own agenda, their own perspectives? They have a closed mindset.

 “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”

Bill Nye

If you want to become a better listener, you must cultivate an interest in other people and see every conversation as an opportunity to learn and expand your knowledge and understanding.

This also enables you to connect fully with others, to help them grow. This way of listening is one of the 10 characteristics of servant leadership.

2. Be present. The research show that most people speak at about 125-150 words per minute, but we can think at over 400 words per minute. Be aware of what you’re doing with all that spare bandwidth!

Thinking about what’s for dinner? Worrying about another project you’re working on? Make sure you bring yourself back to the conversation and focus on listening (see the key behaviors below).

3. Be willing to suspend your agenda. We all have an agenda: whether it’s how we want to move forward with a business project, what we want to do at the weekend, or just our views are on the subject of discussion.

If we always have our agenda in mind, we’ll be ‘listening to respond’ rather than listening to understand and empathize. It’s natural to have an agenda, but we need to be able to suspend it and listen.

4. Be open to ‘go with the flow’. Having certain outcomes in mind also means that we’re tempted to control the direction and content of conversation. There are times when this is a useful skill, but be careful not to overuse this skill.

If you’re truly listening, you go where the speaker wants to go with the topic.

A quick word on ‘Active Listening’

If you’ve been looking for tips for effective listening, you’ve probably come across ‘active listening’.

Typical advice includes:

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Make sure your body language is open and attentive
  • Nod, smile and ‘show’ that you’re listening
  • Encourage the speaker to continue with quick verbal queues such as “yes”, “I see”, “uh huh”.

All of this is important. If you’ve got the right mindset these active listening skills will come naturally, with little thought.

And if you don’t have the right listening mindset, no amount of faking it with nods and smiles is going to make you a better listener!

Key behaviors of better listening

These behaviors are the listening skillset.

5. Don’t interrupt. This is the most obvious of listening tips, but an area that many of us can improve. It’s a simple rule, but difficult to apply consistently (see below, ‘How to become a better listener when your emotions are running high’).

6. Don’t offer your own experiences in response. If someone tells you they’ve just been made redundant, don’t start telling them about the time that you were made redundant. It’s not the same.

Their experience is not an opportunity for you to start showcasing your own experience. Instead, ask questions to understand their experience better.

7. Listen for emotions and meaning. Listening is not just about the words spoken, there are many studies that prove body language and the tone of voice communicate far more than the words.

As you’re listening, be aware of all that the speaker is communicating: through their tone of voice, eye contact (or lack of it), facial expressions and body language. Be aware of any shifts in communication, the emotions being communicated, and the true meaning behind what is being said.

For more on this, take a look at the Chinese character for listening.

8. Ask big, open, questions to explore further. Asking questions is one of the most powerful listening techniques, if it is used properly. Big, open questions encourage the speaker to continue to share, without leading the conversation in a certain direction.

  • How did that make you feel?
  • What were you thinking at that time?
  • What did you learn from that situation?
  • What’s making you say that?
  • Looking forward, what do you plan to do?

Also, take a look at our 9 questioning techniques that get results.

Tips for effective listening when your emotions are running high

All of this is fine, and works well most of the time, but how to become a better listener when your emotions are running high?

Here are the tips for listening that will help:

  • Be aware of your ‘early warning signs’ these will alert you to your increased emotion. Maybe you cross your arms, or you feel a little flushed, or your voice raises? Learn to recognize these early warning signs in your behavior.
  • Regain control of your listening mindset: remind yourself of the desire to understand the other person (however annoying they may seem to be at the time!). Focus on what you can learn from them, regain your presence and be willing to suspend your agenda (at least while you listen!).
  • Regain control of your behaviors: with the right mindset, start to reapply the skillset: don’t interrupt, don’t offer your own experiences in response, listen for emotions and meaning, and ask big, open questions.

Three steps to becoming a better listener

Learning how to become a better listener requires more than just an awareness of the listener’s mindset and skillset. Becoming a better listener requires that you change, to be better!

Here’s a quick guide to help you focus your effort and achieve the change as effectively as possible.

First, become more self-aware of your listening skills. Spend some time just self-monitoring, to increase your awareness of your listening skills. Use the 8 points above to guide yourself and evaluate your currently listening. It will help if you identify specific occasions when you’ll do this.

Second, identify the areas that you want to improve. Once you’ve become more aware, identify 1 or 2 areas (from the 8 points above) that you’d like to improve, that will have most impact.

Third, develop a performance improvement plan. Be intentional about when you’re going to focus on your listening skills and what specifically you’re going to do differently.

It could be your team meetings, or when you first get home from work in the evening or calls with you manager.

And be clear about what behavior changes you’re going to implement. Perhaps you will stop interrupting. Or stop your mind wandering and be fully focused. Or tune into the speaker’s emotions more effectively. Or ask better questions. Whatever it is, know specifically what you’re going to do differently.

Finally, allow time for a little self-reflection. Schedule a little time for yourself and reflect on how you’re doing and what you can continue to improve.