5 Ways to Become a Better Listener
When you think about what it means to be a great communicator, do you think about how you deliver messages or how you receive them?
I admittedly fall into the former camp, and it appears I’m not alone: When we asked people to name an underrated communication skill, over half of the responses involved “listening.”
Listening may seem like a straightforward task, but there’s far more to it than simply retaining what you’re hearing. And investing time to improve your listening skills really pays off: The best listeners enjoy stronger relationships at and outside of work, are far more productive, and boast high confidence levels, just to name a few.
Use the framework below to start boosting your listening skills during your next conversation, no matter if it’s in-person or virtual.
The three types of listening
Listening to protect: The intention of listening to protect is to inform, like when you’re trying to defend an idea or stance.
Listening to accept or reject: The intention behind listening to accept or reject is to persuade, like when you are critiquing someone’s idea in a meeting.
Listening to co-create: The intention behind listening to co-create is to connect and collaborate, like when you are getting to know someone better.
Each has its own time and place, but the last is by far the most mutually beneficial for both parties. When you listen to co-create, you are listening with an open mind, and the main goal is to build rapport with the other person — top priorities for good listeners.
Listening to co-create is practically synonymous with the more popular term “active listening.” As Dianne Grande writes for Psychology Today, active listening “is a way of listening that involves full attention to what is being said for the primary purpose of understanding the speaker.”
According to Glaser, when you listen to co-create, it boosts self-esteem and triggers a series of neurochemical and hormonal responses that catalyze and strengthen the bond between you and the other person, which is especially useful in a workplace context.
5 ways to improve your listening skills
The following tips can help you turn every conversation into an opportunity to listen to co-create.
1. Pay attention to what's being said.
We’re all guilty of drifting away from a conversation we should be tuned into. The reasons are varied; perhaps there are heavier matters weighing on our minds, we’re itching for our turn to speak, or we just aren’t interested in the conversation itself. (We’ll dig deeper into the latter two shortly).
But we also know what it’s like to be on the other side of the table. It’s easy to tell when someone isn’t paying attention to what you have to say — and it’s a terrible feeling.
It’s challenging to find focus when our attention is constantly split between teeming social media feeds, overflowing inboxes, and endlessly pinging notifications … even when we’re sitting next to each other in an office. But context switching is both costly and draining, and it’s not a habit worth encouraging, especially if you're trying to be a good listener.
Devoting your full attention to what someone is saying to you will help you understand the purpose of the conversation and their point of view more quickly, form more thoughtful questions or comments, and absorb everything you need from the conversation so you don’t have to schedule a bunch of follow-ups.
Some quick ways to better focus on a conversation:
Clear your mind of anything that might be weighing on it before you jump into a conversation — it can be as easy as taking a deep breath to reset.
Turn away from any and all screens, or close all of your tabs if you’re talking to someone virtually.
Excuse yourself if any urgent interruptions occur.
If it isn’t a good time, politely let the other person know. It’s much better to not have a conversation at all than to half-listen to one.
When appropriate, repeat back or summarize what the other person has said to let them know that you’ve understood them correctly.
2. Create psychological safety.
Let’s say your direct report has a project due next Wednesday, but another urgent project just came across their desk and it’s due this week. They simply don’t have enough time to complete both, so they ask you for an extension on the first project.
If your team has a culture built around psychological safety, they wouldn’t feel nervous about approaching you about extending the deadline.
Psychological safety enables teammates to fully express themselves — both the good and the bad — without fear of judgment or punishment in order to have richer conversations and make more impactful decisions.
Amy Edmonson, professor at Harvard Business School and inventor of the term, told Forbes: “Psychologically safe employees are more interested in learning, excellence, and genuinely connecting with others than in looking good.”
Creating psychological safety means setting aside judgment and embracing your vulnerability, and it allows whomever you’re speaking with to open themselves up to you more readily.
Use these techniques to create psychological safety:
Own up to your mistakes.
Ask for feedback.
When offering feedback, talk about the behavior you observed and the impact it had to keep it objective.
Ask what you can do to help the other person succeed.
Encourage different perspectives or opinions, especially ones that differ from your own.
Listen from a place of curiosity, and take genuine interest in what the other person is saying to prevent yourself from getting defensive.
High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It. — Harvard Business Review
The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety — Timothy R. Clark
3. Don’t just wait for your turn to speak.
Sometimes a brilliant idea or interesting life story comes to mind when someone else is talking. You try to focus on what they’re saying, but all of your energy is invested in the excitement of sharing what’s on the tip of your tongue. But by the time you’re able to get a word in, the conversation has moved on to another topic. What do you do?
A conversation can’t move forward if you’re not doing your part to thoughtfully build upon it. Sure, in some cases you may not completely derail the conversation, but it doesn’t absolve you from tuning out of it in the first place.
When you do have a moment to speak, rather than find an opportunity to make your voice heard, prioritize helping the other person feel acknowledged, appreciated, and treated as an individual.
Here’s how you can keep a conversation flowing when listening to co-create:
Don't go into a conversation with only your own agenda in mind. You never know what you can learn from someone else, so use every conversation as an opportunity to learn from your interaction instead of inserting what you want to say.
Savor pauses. When a conversation comes to a brief standstill, use that time to digest what the other person has said instead of jamming in the thoughts you’ve been sitting on. Doing so will keep the conversation moving along naturally and help you reach your desired outcome faster.
Think before you speak. Sometimes it helps to share a personal anecdote or example to empathize with and relate to the speaker. But before you jump in, ask yourself if it’ll be helpful or interesting for them to hear what you have to say.
Ask questions. When it is your turn to speak, try to ask the speaker open-ended questions to show them that you’re interested in what they have to say and ensure they’ve expressed everything on their mind.
Take an improv approach to stay present. Adam Bryant, the journalist behind The New York Times column “Corner Office,” put together a brilliant write-up on what it takes to be a better listener based on his conversations with business leaders. In it, he describes a leader who brought an improv instructor on board to help his team improve their listening skills. His reasoning: You can’t prepare what you’re going to say ahead of time when you do improv — you must listen in order to provide a thoughtful response in the moment.
Send a follow-up. If you didn’t have a chance to share your thoughts with the speaker during your conversation, send them an asynchronous follow-up. A video message is a perfect medium for your thoughts, since you can capture nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language and the recipient can watch it on their own time.
4. Use — and observe — body language.
Your body language is a telltale sign of whether or not you’re really listening. In fact, 80% of what we communicate comes from nonverbal cues, such as posture, gestures, facial expressions, and perspiration.
Body language adds color to a conversation, so don’t overdo it for the sake of overdoing it. Facing the speaker and leaning in, sustaining eye contact, nodding your head, and offering up an affirming smile or laugh when appropriate are all great ways to show the speaker they have your attention without coming across intimidatingly.
Observing the speaker’s body language can help you gauge how they’re feeling about the conversation so you can adjust your response appropriately. For example, if someone is visibly nervous speaking with you, you probably want to soften your body language to help them feel at ease.
Remote work adds a layer of complexity to using and observing body language. Like many, a friend of mine has been adapting to remote learning during the pandemic as she pursues her master’s degree. During one of our most recent chats, she mentioned how difficult it has been to adapt — not because of any technological issues or staying in touch with peers, but because she relies on using body language to express how engaged she is with what her professors are saying.
Tips on how to express body language virtually:
Make eye contact. It’s awkward to do virtually, but whether you aim to look directly at your camera or just the image of the person on your screen, keep your gaze as fixed as possible. It’s pretty easy to tell when someone is looking at something else. 👀
Agree with what’s being said? Affirm it with a nod — it might seem excessive if you’re not used to it, but it immediately lets the speaker know that you’re engaged, which is helpful when they can only see you from the shoulders up.
Show off your Duchenne smile, which is when the corners of your mouth and cheeks lift and the corners of your eyes crinkle. This particular smile is believed to lower stress levels for both the speaker and listener.
Think about the good listeners you know — what do they do to make you feel heard? Mimic their body language when listening to someone else.
Use emoji reactions on Zoom. Offering a clap 👏 or thumbs up 👍 is a convenient way to show you’re listening without running the risk of interrupting anyone.
If you’re sharing an asynchronous video update, use a tool that allows the listener to engage with it. Loom’s emoji reactions, time-stamped comments, and engagement insights let the speaker know that their message has been received.
5. Improve your own verbal communication skills.
One way to strengthen your listening skills is to strengthen your verbal communication skills. After all, if you know what to say to get people to listen, you can steer those you listen to on the same course to make way for good conversation. If you’re unsure where to start, first determine your unique communication style to gain a better understanding of how you communicate.
From there, identify your weak points. (We all have them!) Perhaps you could be better at choosing the proper medium to communicate or being concise.
For example, if you need to explain a complex concept, try sending a video message instead of holding a synchronous meeting. Your listener can watch it as many times as they need to and increase the playback speed up to 2x to digest your message more quickly and better retain the content of your message.
Communication expert Julian Treasure has a great TED Talk on how to improve your speaking skills so that others will listen:
Effective communication: not just about talking
If you're on a quest to improve your communication skills, becoming an effective listener will be an integral part of your journey. Great listeners invoke empathy, curiosity, and the desire to establish deeper connections in every conversation, which will serve you well both at work and beyond.
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Written by Karina Parikh
Karina is a Content Marketing Manager at Loom.