If you plan on improving your listening skills, I recommend that you follow the advice I received from the hostage negotiator trainer, Richard Mullender: practice listening for five minutes every day. Listening actively and being present in the listening situation is hard work. It uses up your mental bandwidth just like speaking does. That’s why you must develop your listening muscles patiently.
There are many areas of listening that you can pay attention to and develop. Some examples are:
- The active listening position
- Asking good questions
- Using the echo technique
- Checking your assumptions by naming them
- Checking what the other person said by summarising it
- Focusing on the situation
- Avoiding giving advice
Choose one of these and begin with something easy. After that, consider in which situation you could practice for five minutes today. Do you have a suitable meeting coming up? Will you be listening to a family member at the end of a workday? Will you call someone up to practice? Commit to your five-minute practice in advance so that you’ll get it done.
Pick a good time to practice listening
It’s crucial to recognise that there are situations in which you shouldn’t practice. You wouldn’t go to the gym when you’re ill, tired and haven’t really eaten anything. Using the same logic, after a poorly slept night when you’re hangry and feel awful all around, listening is extremely difficult and practicing basically useless.
So, before you begin listening, check in with yourself. Do you have the energy, mental and physical? Do you have the bandwidth to listen? Would you actually need for someone to listen to you and be present?
The better we have fulfilled our own needs, the better listeners we are. The better we know ourselves and our needs, the better we fulfil them. That’s why the key to better communication when it comes to listening – just like it is with many other things – is knowing yourself.
Acknowledge when you’re listening and when you aren’t
Finally, it’s important to notice that we do many things with half of our attention because we don’t really know ourselves what we’re doing. We listen and we scroll on our phones, and we don’t really focus on either. We answer emails and think about a problem at work, and we don’t get anywhere with either. We relax on the sofa, but our minds are stuck on a half-finished domestic task, and we don’t benefit from either.
That’s why just a small dash of being consciously present can do you wonders. When you’re listening, listen. Focus on listening and set everything else aside. And when you feel like scrolling your social media feeds, scroll away. If someone tries to talk to you then, tell them, “Wait a moment, I can’t concentrate right now.”
On the other hand, it also matters what sort of listening the situation requires of you. If the other person has simply come for a chat, keeping your ear open is probably enough. But if the other person is telling you something, you should be listening. You’ll get better at it by practicing.
TL;DR: Practice listening for five minutes every day
- Listening practice is best done consciously in small chunks.
- Choose one listening tool and begin with something easy.
- Choose beforehand when you’ll be focusing on listening for five minutes.
- Aim to practice listening when you’re in a good place to do so, ie, when you’re feeling well yourself.
- Acknowledge when you’re listening and when you’re not – avoid doing several things badly at the same time.
- Don’t forget to consider what kind of listening is appropriate for the situation.
- If the other person is just looking for a casual chat, it’s enough if some of your focus is on listening.
- If the other person has something important to tell you, it’s better to listen carefully.