The Secrets of Being a Good Listener—They’re Not What You Think

published Sep 28, 2016
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Is there anything better than a great conversation? Is there anything more frustrating than not being listened to? If your answer to both these questions is “no,” or if you’ve found that others get frustrated with you for not listening, read on for a ton of tips that will help your chats be far more fun, friendly, and productive.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review posits that what most people think of as good listening skills—not talking, making listening faces and/or noises, retaining the words spoken—actually fall short of What Great Listeners Actually Do. Here are seven of the researchers’ best indicators of great listeners and quality conversations:

  • Periodically asking questions that promote discovery and insight.
  • Making the other person feel supported and conveying confidence in them.
  • Allowing feedback to flow smoothly in both directions, with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made.
  • Not listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, or using your own silence as a chance to prepare the next response.
  • Providing feedback in a way others would accept and that opens up alternative paths to consider.
  • Focusing attention on the other person and making appropriate eye-contact.
  • Observing non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, perspiration, respiration rates, gestures, posture, and numerous other subtle body language signals.

The article goes on to describe the six levels of good listenerhood, noting that, “Each of the levels builds on the others; thus, if you’ve been criticized (for example) for offering solutions rather than listening, it may mean you need to attend to some of the other levels (such as clearing away distractions or empathizing) before your proffered suggestions can be appreciated.”

(Image credit: Selena Kirchhoff)

How to Be a Better Conversationalist

I find this all so fascinating and important, as there’s little that I love more than a good chat. The findings from the article ring true, in my experience, and I think we could all use a little coaching on how to be better listeners and speakers.

Interrupt Sparingly

Frequent interruptions wreck a person’s train of thought and makes them feel unheard (because they’re not getting to speak). If you interrupt, ask yourself whether it falls under Harvard Business Review‘s description of helpful interruption—conveys support, clarifies ideas, creates a positive interaction—or whether it could be considered combative, competitive, or distracted. Don’t interrupt unless it adds to the conversation and benefits both of you.

Think of a Conversation As a Piece of Music

Here’s a tip from my mom, who shared it with 40 years’ worth of students: In addition to listening to the words people are saying, pay attention to the actual sound of the conversation. Are the voices flowing together harmoniously? What percent of the noises are your own voice? Have you only heard your own voice for the past 10 minutes? Wouldn’t it be nice to hear your friend’s voice, too? Take turns, kids!

Clarify The Point of The Conversation

Sometimes people just want to rant, sometime they’re looking for advice, sometime they’re hoping for someone to be outraged with/for them, sometimes they really want to analyze a situation, and sometimes they just want to get the facts out and move on. A quick clarification of what the speaker is hoping for can help the listener do a better job of getting at the heart of what’s being shared with them.

Help The Listeners Out

Ideally, a conversation between two people will be about 50/50, but there are cases in which one speaker has a more prominent role, such as telling the story of a breakup or explaining something on which they are an expert. Even in such unevenly weighted talks, the balance of the conversation shouldn’t be 95/5 or 100/0. If you’re speaking at length, try taking micropauses so your listener can ask a (possibly helpful/interesting) question. You don’t have to stop talking—just make it possible for someone to get a word in edgewise.

Do you agree with the article’s assessment of good listening? Do you have any advice for being a better conversationalist?