Embrace these and get the most out of the discussions you’re having with friends, colleagues, and family.
When it comes to communication, you might think in terms of what to say and how to say it. Many people are naturally solution-oriented, so we tend to rush ahead in conversation; to plan and prioritize our personal points first.
Think about it: if you’re focused on what you’re going to say next, can you truly process what another person is saying? Without listening, you can’t inform your responses, and uninformed responses come off as they are: vague, rehearsed, counterintuitive, or worst: offensive and uncaring.
Instead, use active listening as a conversation tool with colleagues or family members to get the most out of the discussions you’re having.
Active listening is exactly what it sounds like: meaning each party actively engages with the information presented by the other party. This is done throughout the conversation, and allows each person to feel more comfortable sharing and receiving — which leads to lasting, comprehensive solutions. In the very best situations, it leaves each person feeling truly heard and understood. (That can take a lot of practice, time, and presence, but it’s oh so worth for the results.)
Let’s take a look at the 4 qualities of truly great listeners. For each one, we’ve provided a “self-reflection point” to help you identify what it should look, sound, or feel like. We’ve also included some practice suggestions so you can continue to work on making everyone you speak with feel like they’re the only one in the room with you. Ready? Listen up.
Quality #1: They are teachable.
Most of us say we love learning new things, but… do we really?
Great listeners approach every conversation as an opportunity to learn. This means suspending all assumptions that you know everything (or even a little bit more!) about a given subject.
Allowing room for different or, more likely, enhanced understanding is the first step in being able to fully hear your other person or people. A teachable perspective also helps you take a step back from the situation — so that you don’t react rashly or emotionally to different (or constructive or negative) information.
Self-Reflection: Are you open to new knowledge even to the point of criticism? Are you prepared to be told, "you’re wrong"? Can you suspend your defensiveness?Practice Point: When was the last time someone taught you something new or corrected your misunderstanding? Did you thank that person? If not, send them an email to show that gratitude. Better late than never!Practice Point: Have you ever intentionally or unintentionally tuned someone out who was trying to explain something to you? An apology can go a long way in signaling to someone that you have an open heart and mind. Why not use this as an opportunity to say, “I’m sorry” and give yourself a second chance to practice those active listening skills.
Quality #2: They are genuinely interested.
You say you care, but what is it that you truly care about?
Great listeners have the ability to be draw out your most honest and authentic self, without making you fear retribution or emotional distress.
We know that when people feel comfortable expressing their opinions, ideas, and expertise, they are more likely to feel a part of something bigger, and subsequently less likely to be unhappy or feel untrusted.
Ask yourself: Do you care about how you come out of a conversation — as the champion, the one who is ‘right’ or admired — or do you truly care about understanding someone else’s viewpoints? Be honest.
Self-Reflection: What behavior am I modeling with this conversation, and is it productive? If I’m having a hard time hearing this person out, what is it that might be making it difficult for me? Do I actually know what I care about or what I'm looking to get out of this conversation? If not, maybe I'm not in the right head-space to chat right now.Practice Point: If you’re feeling like you don’t have a genuine interest in a person or conversation, it may be because there isn’t a deeper relationship or trust there. Check yourself to see if you can sense any barriers that may be preventing open communication.Practice Point: If you strongly disagree with someone, it may be because you have different values. Instead of focusing on your differences, reframe the situation as a way to better understand what this particular person cares deeply about that informs their viewpoint(s).
Quality #3: They ask the right questions.
Not all questions are great questions, learn to recognize the difference between questions that invite dialogue and questions that shut it down.
Great listeners get the relevant facts and feelings the speaker is sharing by asking the right questions. Questions are an incredibly important part of conversation, because let people know that we hear them, that we’re following along, and that we actually care about what they’re saying.
For example, instead of addressing a disagreement by simply asking how, who, or what, ask specifically, “how is this impeding your workflow/relationship/productivity/engagement?” or, “what can I/we do to better support you in the future?” That way, the conversation feels less like an interrogation (assigning blame), and more like mediation (outlining a course of action). You can also consider questions as a way to uncover additional truths about the situation, the other person’s perspective, or their relationship to the topic you’re discussing.
Self-Reflection: What types of questions do I typically ask? Do I have a tendency to ask leading questions? Am I comfortable if there's silence or do I feel the need to fill the gap with my own assumptions about their answers?Practice Point: If, like many people, you get a little uncomfortable when it’s silent, force yourself to count to 5 (slowly, in your head) after asking a question. Practice Point: If you have a tendency to interrupt, begin to raise your awareness of how that interferes in open dialogue by making a small tally mark on a notepad each time you interrupt. If you’re feeling particularly honest, at the beginning of the conversation you can let the listener know it’s something you’re working on improving.
Quality #4: They are responsive.
You’ve talked, now what? Don’t miss a chance to maintain momentum and keep the connection alive.
The best of the best listeners show that they value listening with their day-to-day actions.
That means taking care to maintain agreed-upon solutions while still remaining open to future changes. Be sure to ask for input before making decisions that affect the other person or people directly, even in a seemingly small way.
If something feels off as you move forward, or if you feel like the situation has changed, be ready to revisit the conversation with new information that’s come to light. Remember — keep your ‘teachability mindset’ on at all times and encourage others to do the same.
Self-Reflection: How is active listening reflected in your daily behaviors? Practice Point: Put a check-in on the calendar each month with the person or people you want to continue to learn from. A chat over coffee, tea, kombucha, or wine (even virtually) can do wonders for continued learning and evolution of relationships. It will help to build that genuine interest, trust, honesty and openness.
Here’s the thing. When listening is practiced on both sides, neither will be able to offer quick fixes — and at the end of the day, that’s a good thing. Thoughtful consideration of any issue takes time, but also results in both mutual and lasting understanding and learning moving forward.
Be patient as you consider each point and perspective before rushing forward to a solution to just be “done with it.” Otherwise, you’re bound to have missed something, especially the opportunity to connect with a fellow human being about something that might be really important to you both.
Finally, remember that practicing active listening is critical — just like any other tool you might use to improve your interpersonal relationships. No one communicates perfectly all of the time, and everyone gets distracted sometimes. It’s tough, so give yourself and others some grace and space as you navigate difficult conversations together.
Need help having a conversation? Had the conversation but having trouble getting through to each other? Let’s talk! Email firstname.lastname@example.org