How To Listen – 10 Expert Tips


Our friends at ‘Listen First Project’ are working to heal divides one conversation at a time. They are active in the US, The Netherlands, and Uganda. They’re helping people learn to listen to those that are different to them, and to listen well. We asked listening expert DR. GRAHAM BODIE from the organisation to share his tips for listening well. Here’s what he had to say… Most of us spend a good deal of our waking hours interacting with others. Some studies show we spend up to two-thirds of our day listening. But just because we do it a lot, it doesn’t mean we do it well. We’ve all experienced times when people interrupt, ignore our perspective, or criticise who we are. And when we experience this, we feel both emotionally and physiologically exhausted. Good listening is good for our health. It improves our wellbeing, our relationships, and our communities. But good listening is more than just understanding the words someone uses. Good listening means getting to know someone, attempting to understand what makes them tick, and learning what can help them accomplish their goals. Doing this well takes practice. So why not practice the tips below with your friends and family, your co-workers and community. In fact, why not practice wherever there is a person to whom you can “listen first”! 1. Be a “Uni-Tasker”. “Multitasking” is a myth. When you think you’re multitasking, all you are really doing is switching your attention between individual tasks. This wastes time, drains energy, increases stress, and reduces the quality of your listening. If you want to listen properly, then the first step is to stop doing other things! Put away your phone, take off your watch, turn off the TV, meet in a quiet location. 2. Stay mindful and present in the conversation. Even when uni-tasking, we can still get distracted: your mind can wander all over the place. Each morning for the next five mornings, pick a natural organism and focus on it for two minutes. It could be a flower or blade of grass. It could be a cloud or the moon. Don’t do anything but look at it closely. Visually explore every aspect of this glorious organism. Allow yourself to be consumed by its presence and possibilities. Allow your spirit to connect with its role and purpose in the world. When you speak with others during the rest of the day, treat them as you did the object. 3. Stay focused on what your conversational partner is saying. Dale Carnegie said that most people listen to respond rather than to understand. When you think about what to say next, you are likely missing important information. Instead of thinking about your own opinions, emotions, or ideas, stay focused on the other. Play a game with yourself that involves you winning if you remember most of what the other person has said. Do anything you can to remind yourself that your only job is to focus on the other. 4. Resist the temptation to interrupt. Although you may not be aware of it, you have a tendency to interrupt. We all do! It’s natural to want to share your opinion. But for most listening situations, your opinion does not matter. The speaker does not necessarily want to hear your side of the story. And so when you want to interrupt, ask yourself, “is it necessary?”. If you’re confused and need clarification, then apologise, provide a reason, and seek clarification. Otherwise, allow the speaker to finish. 5. Paraphrase your understanding. Often, after listening to someone speak, our response is to share our own story or opinion. We often do this without much regard for what the other person just said. Instead, try putting what the other person said into your own words, and phrase this as a question in order to check you have understood properly. There is a world of difference between “This is what you want” and “I am hearing that this is what you want, is that correct? 6. Validation, Part 1. We all want to feel that our opinion matters. In order to express to someone that their opinion or feelings are valid, you should first think about things from their perspective. Here is a short activity to illustrate. First, think about a behaviour that someone close to you engages in that bothers you. Then ask yourself: how does this behaviour help my partner seek pleasure, or avoid pain? What need are they trying to meet, and how can I help them meet it? What past experience makes them likely to do this? And how can I minimise the effect of this behaviour on me? 7. Validation, Part 2. Once you can see someone’s behaviour outside of your own perspective, you can validate that perspective out loud! You can validate emotions (‘That sounds incredibly stressful!’), difficulties (‘Wow, you must be hurting!’), and facts (‘That was a harsh accident’). But don’t minimise (‘It’s not so bad, is it?’), advise (‘You should feel blessed…’), fix (‘I will take care of this’), cheerlead (‘I know you can do it!’), justify (‘I bet they were just...’), judge (‘What you did was wrong’), make life statements (‘That’s life!’), or make it about you (‘Yep, I've been there’). 8. Use ‘minimal encouragement’ to keep them talking. If you are completely silent then it may make the speaker uncomfortable. Whilst they are speaking, you can encourage them using sounds (e.g. ‘hmmm’ and ‘yeah’) or gestures (e.g. nods and smiles). But these gestures are not a substitute for properly listening – if you are not interested, chances are you won’t look interested! 9. Ask short questions that encourage the speaker to keep going. Minimal encouragement can be powerful, but sometimes you need to provide more than this. If you sense that the person might need more encouragement, then ask questions like ‘Really? Can you tell me more?’ or ‘That’s so interesting. What about X?’. Doing this can also help you avoid stating your own opinion (see #4 above). 10. Take notes when appropriate. This might help you remember a person’s main ideas and important details. But be careful when doing so. First, ask permission. Second, maintain eye contact as much as you can. And third, don’t try to write down every word the other person is saying. For more advice and tips on listening, including the discovery of what type of listener you are, visit Listen First Project, follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or email graham@listenfirstproject.org.


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