Listening is an essential communication skill.  One that is often overlooked when thinking about how to further conversation and build relationships.  By using these best practices, you can become a better listener and improve your communication skills as a result.

Listen to What Others are Saying

Sure, this sounds completely obvious, but when you really stop to listen to what others are saying, you start to find there is usually more to the story.  People are willing to share a little and will continue to open up when asked meaningful questions that progress the conversation.  Don’t be afraid to dig in with statements like, “Tell me what you mean” or “And then what happened?” both help confirm you’re an active listener, you care about the conversation and you’re invested in the person who is sharing with you.

You can strengthen your conversation muscle by practicing.  Just start by listening to what others are saying.

Listen to Listen; not to Respond

Most people listen to a small amount of a conversation and then are prepared with a response.  But I encourage you to take time to listen, just listen.  Settle into the conversation and physically lean in.  This will help you increase your comfort and naturally be more engaged.  You’ll find when you listen to listen, you are more likely to truly absorb and understand what the other person is saying, what they mean, and how you can best help (which is sometimes just being the listener).

Listening to listen is a skill that can be learned and is strengthened the more it’s practiced.

Listen to What Others Aren’t Saying

Listening to what isn’t being said is often my favorite form of listening.  Is the person stressed, stand-offish or distracted? This could help you understand what they’re saying isn’t accurate and you may need to stop and do an ’emotions’ assessment.  I often like to say, “It seems like you’re stressed (or distracted), what’s going on?” and then I plan to listen, really listen. I also enjoy reaffirming value-added context in conversations.

People are often a little embarrassed to share successes, even when it should be a rousing celebration.  You’ll often hear, “I don’t want to make a big deal of this. . .” or “Here’s something I needed to share” and the person seems proud but timid or restrained.  I like to stop the conversation and say, “What you told me is a big deal.  You should be proud. Congratulations on your achievement!” and then ask them to share more about their success.  You can visibly see the weight removed from them as they share their success with renewed pride.

Digging into conversations – and what isn’t being said – can help strengthen your conversation, your relationship and reinforce positive behavior in others.

How to Grow Your Listening Muscle

Trying to become a better listener will take focus and attention, just like building any other muscle.  To improve your skills, try these strategies:

  • Plan a time to talk when you’re both “occupied,” like driving or walking. The activity helps keep you active and often a conversation where you “can’t” look at the other person makes listening and speaking easier.
  • Sit in a way that you can discreetly cover your mouth. This is a vivid reminder that will help you focus on not speaking, and instead focus on actively listening.
  • Look the person directly in the eye. When you’re speaking with the most important person in the world, you can’t help but to try to catch their eye.  The same goes for listening.  Pretend this person is the most important person because they are in this moment.
  • Plan in advance to be an excellent listener. As you go into conversations, think to yourself “I’m going to actively listen today.” Say it aloud if needed.  This will help you make a purposeful plan to actively listen.

Listening effectively is a valuable strategy that can help you increase your knowledge and understanding, improve your communication and your relationships, and add value to your professional skills.  Work regularly to make improvements to your listening habits, and as a result, you will strengthen your listening skills.