Most people were born with the capability to hear, but the ability to listen takes time and practice to learn. While effective listening is a valuable skill both at work and in your personal life, it is often underappreciated.
In professional and interpersonal relationships, everyone wants to feel heard and have their opinions and values respected. But most of the time when we engage in conversations with others, we come away feeling frustrated and drained, and our concerns are not addressed. That’s because there are many barriers to effective listening. In this article, we will identify what they are and how you can become a better, more effective listener in the process.
Not being present
Have you ever talked to someone who is completely distracted by his or her phone? It is annoying, not knowing whether what you are saying is getting through to the other person, and you feel ignored and left out. This is why not being “fully there” in the present conversion is one of the biggest challenges preventing you from being a good listener, and oftentimes, it is a huge waste of time for both parties involved.
Of course, having a phone around is just one visible distraction, but there are a million other invisible distractions pulling you away from the conversation. If you’ve ever been in a meeting, thinking about what to eat for dinner or your to-do list, you know that your mind can be the biggest distraction of all. An effective listening skill is to listen actively, which means focusing fully on the matter at hand, and letting go of thoughts that are irrelevant to the discussion you’re having. Regular mindfulness exercises can help you become increasingly resistant to distractions and train your mind to focus, which will help you become a better listener in the future.
Making judgement or assumptions about the speaker
Quick judgement and cognitive biases are evolutionary responses – it is a feature built into our DNA to help us make snap judgements in dangerous situations and react quickly to maintain our safety. However, when we carry this tendency with us to regular, everyday situations, it can be a barrier to effective listening.
If you have ever jumped to a conclusion while listening to a friend’s story, or made judgement about a new friend before hearing the whole story, then you’ll know that it is not a productive contribution to the conversation. Our judgements are framed by our worldviews, backgrounds, and history, so assigning your values and personal responses to another person’s situations will not help you make sense of the situation, and it can even prevent you from empathising with the speaker. Instead, you need to be conscious of when your mind is making judgements about what you’re hearing, and actively offer counter-arguments and empathy towards the speaker. Doing so will also help you become a more empathetic and positive person in the long run.
Thinking about what to say next
We all want to appear insightful and intelligent in meetings, so sometimes we jump into the pitfall of spending all our time formulating a response instead of listening to the conversation. This happens especially in big meetings, since people often don’t allow one another some quiet time to reflect and respond appropriately. When you do this, even though it appears that you are actively engaging in the conversation, you are not actually contributing anything insightful because you are not tackling the problem that the other person is raising.
So how do we become better listeners? If you’re spending one-on-one time with others, listen with the intention of understanding, not responding. Most of the time when people talk, they just want to be heard, not counseled. If they expect a response or advice, spend a few moments thinking before responding. Even though the silence can be awkward at first, if you practice this step in every conversation, people will feel heard and respected. Listening with intention can also help you correctly identify the problem at hand and solve it more effectively.
In group settings, it may be more difficult to practice this, since everyone tries to get a word in and there may not be much time to listen and think. However, it doesn’t mean that this is impossible. During virtual meetings, if you don’t want to interrupt the speaker, you can employ these useful hand signals to navigate the conversation, and help the group steer towards a more effective direction. When you listen to the group, try to note down key ideas and when it is your turn to speak, you can repeat these key ideas as a way to affirm that you have correctly identified the problem at hand. Rephrasing known information will also give you a few moments to organize your thoughts and formulate an insightful response.
Making their situation about you
Thinking “what would I do in this situation?” is an effective way to empathise with another person’s problems. However, taking it too far by talking about your own history or similar issues you’ve experienced may make you seem like a narcissist who only wants to talk about him or herself. This is one of the greatest barriers to good listening, and both parties will leave the conversation feeling frustrated and disrespected.
Empathising and engaging with the person you are talking to, without making it about you, requires actively disengaging with your own history and personal problems and understanding that everyone has a different worldview that may affect their responses. Your empathy will make your conversation partner feel valued without asserting yourself into their story, allowing space for productive discussion and problem-solving. This act of active listening will allow you to become a more empathetic listener and expand your worldview.