Becoming A Better Listener for Fun and Profit

How To Make Friends, Influence People, and Get Ahead—Without Even Opening Your Mouth

You probably aren’t a good listener.

Studies show that 98% of us think we’re good listeners. But, on average (and that’s including the truly good listeners) we retain only about 25% of what we hear when actively listening, and your significant other is pretty sure it’s even less than that.

Not good.

Those of us who admit to our shortcomings in the listening department may believe that “good listeners” have a special gift or talent. And that’s our excuse for talking too much, while spending any downtime—that irritating lull in the conversation when someone else is speaking—formulating our next witty remark.

Being a good listener really isn’t natural.

It’s a skill that needs to be cultivated and learned, just like other forms of business and personal communications. You’ve read books, watched videos, even taken classes in writing and public speaking. But has anyone, since grade school, bothered to teach you how to listen?

Probably not.

William Ury had to negotiate with former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, known for his six-hour television monologues. How did he do it? By paying attention to the whole darned monologue.

Negotiator William Ury lists three big reasons why you should learn to be a better listener.

First, you want to change the other person’s mind. We think of negotiations being about talking, but they are really about listening. How can you change the other person’s mind if you don’t know what’s on their mind?

Second, it helps us connect with the other human being. Everyone wants to be heard.

Finally, the other person is more likely to listen to you if you listen to them. It gets your team to yes.

Isn’t that the reason you planned this meeting, presentation, or negotiation, in the first place? To get to “yes”?


What Kind of Listener Are You?

You already know that you are judged on your ability to communicate—that is, to speak and write. You’ve been graded on it, gotten professional feedback on it, and perhaps even been subjected to focus groups or surveys.

But we are also judged on our ability to listen, at least twice: First, when we are doing it, which you might be able to fake (protip: you probably can’t fake it nearly as well as you think you can), and second, when we need to recall the information.

Good listeners—those who pass both subconscious tests with flying colors—are often ranked smarter, better informed, and more trusted as advisors than good speakers. More on that later.

First, you need to know what kind of listener you are. Dr. Anthony Alessandra offers four broad categories:

1. Non-Listeners

You have a hard time tuning into other people at all, and it’s obvious. People have remarked on your rude, glazed-over look, if not to you than to others. It has negatively affected your work and social life.

You may need professional help, as substance abuse or a deep-seated personality disorder may be responsible for that rich inner world. Tackle that, however, and you may discover that you were “naturally” a great listener all along.

2. Marginal Listeners

More dangerous than non-listeners, you can fake earnest attention and keep up with superficial themes or arguments, but zone out on details and deeper meanings. You don’t ask questions, are unwilling or unable put yourself in the speaker’s shoes, and forget most of what you hear immediately. You have problems with relationships and work responsibilities, but can’t figure out why. Even though you’ve been told several times, in great detail, by lots of people.

You need to commit to learning, and practicing, active listening.

3. Evaluate Listeners

You make a real effort to listen, probably because you’re formulating a pithy (or adversarial) response. You are excellent at retaining facts, figures, and even themes from a conversation, but don’t try to understand where the other person is coming from. Eventually, they realize that, and become frustrated.

You need to dig deeper into what the other person really means, and try harder to understand and respect their point of view. That means asking questions, pausing to hear answers, and feeling empathy for ideas and beliefs that are not your own.

4. The Active Listener

When you interact with others, you are committed to communicating. You turn off your own internal monologue and focus on the other person. You pay attention to nuance, body language, and inflection. You ask meaningful questions, as part of your effort to find a deeper understanding of the other person. You retain information—and meaning—for months or years, and use that knowledge to keep the lines of communication open. Your social life and work benefit enormously from this investment of time and energy.

You need to come over for dinner some time, and/or send us your résumé.

Talking about Yourself Is Better than Sex

Ina Claire reclining

Tell me more.
Ina Claire, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

You already know that talking about yourself has a lot of downsides: You aren’t learning anything, you’re boring or irritating the people around you, you’re uncontrollably giving away secrets, and after a while you get a sore throat. So why do almost all of us do it?

According to science, it’s because blathering on and on about your recent vacation is one of the most pleasurable activities in which humans engage.

“A recent series of studies conducted by Harvard neuroscientist[s]… found that self-disclosure activates the same regions of the brain that are associated with food, money, and sex.”

Yes, your brain is releasing a pleasurable chemical cocktail every time you open your mouth. Which means that if you can’t exercise some self-control and self-awareness, you will naturally try to dominate every conversation. And that’s sort of like eating all the ice cream in front of everyone else stuck at your table.

So tone yourself down. You’ve probably figured out about where you rank on the “good listener” scale, above. If you want to move up a notch or two, you need to go on a self- absorption diet—and to your brain, it’s literally a diet.

To make matters worse, listening is hard work, the mental equivalent of a workout. You’ve probably noticed that listening tires you out quickly, while talking gives you energy. The more you try to listen, to understand the speaker and retain information, the more weight you’re mentally lifting.

Yes, becoming a better listener is analogous to improving your diet and exercise regime. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that you don’t have to become an ace listener overnight. Your friends and coworkers love you anyway, and are going to respond positively even to small improvements.

It’s OK to start slowly, incrementally replacing your bad habits with good ones, and occasionally allowing yourself a cheat day.

Learning to Be a Great Listener
Two people sitting by a lake enjoying a date night
Enough about me. Tell me about you. What do you think about me?
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

If you’re like most of us, you’ve spent a lifetime as a bad listener. Which means that telling you to “turn off your inner monologue, focus entirely on the other person, and use your unadulterated empathy to understand what they are truly seeing, feeling, and saying,” is fine goal.

It’s also unrealistic if you’re a Marginal Listener with a big meeting tomorrow.

Happily, there are several shortcuts to becoming a great listener. Some are so simple that even Non-Listeners, with a little willpower and restraint, will be able to communicate more effectively now, and start retaining important information. Give one of these a try today.

Remove Distractions: Put your phone away, stop taking notes in meetings (you’ll almost always retain more information if you pay full attention to the speaker), and take calls at an empty desk or table.

Pause: Instead of responding right after the other person stops speaking, count to four. That gives the speaker a chance to continue communicating his ideas with you.

Ask Questions: The speaker has more to say, but subconsciously wants to give you a turn. Rather than take it, give her a free pass to keep communicating her ideas by asking questions. Request more information on specific details, or simply say, “That’s very interesting, can you tell me more?” Or “You’ve shared three important things about your project, is there anything else you’d like me to know?”

Paraphrase: This is especially useful when you’re trying to solve a problem or make plans. Make an educated guess about what the speaker is thinking and feeling, then summarize their previous statements in as few words as possible. Some experts recommend avoiding “I” entirely. (E.g., instead of, “I hear you saying that you want Mexican food, but are on a diet and conflicted about corn chip appetizers,” you’d say, “You seem to want Mexican food, but perhaps you’d rather eat something lighter?”) Either way, a good listener lets the speaker work through the conflict or decision themselves, rather than simply strong-arming the other person into sushi.

Pay Attention to Body Language: Listening to a speaker’s words only uses about 25% of your brainpower, which leaves 75% of your thoughts running wild—planning dinner, formulating a response, and otherwise distracting you from being a better listener. Devote some of that extra energy to reading the speaker’s body language, a fun game and a form of listening; some 60% of communication is nonverbal. Eventually, you’ll you become good at it, and read people automatically.

Be Aware of Your Own Body Language: Especially if you’re at the lower end of the listening spectrum, your brain wants you to talk. Badly. So it will start sending out cues that it’s your turn: Focusing your eyes above or to the right of the speaker, crossing your arms or legs, clearing your throat. Correct your posture and gaze deliberately. It may be awkward at first, but soon it will be second nature.

Let the Negative Feelings Flow Through You: If you’re at the higher end of the spectrum, you may stop listening when your own ideas or beliefs are challenged—or worse, criticized. If that’s when your arms cross and you begin formulating responses rather than listening, you’re losing knowledge, insight, wisdom, and the chance to avoid conflict before it happens. In short, the most important benefits of being a good listener. Instead of getting defensive, make a note of what caused you so much discomfort, and ask the speaker why they’ve come to that conclusion. If you can do that, you’re ready to negotiate productively with almost anyone.

Will They Stop Noticing Me If I Listen More?


Don’t confuse active listening with being a shy wallflower, one of those people who absorbs the endless, mindless blather of stronger personalities without attempting to get a word in edgewise. If that’s you, you’ve probably got great listening skills, well done. Now go read some blog posts on being assertive, because the world needs all of that accumulated wisdom!

Being a great active listener makes people see you smarter, more insightful, and more valuable to the company or social circle. “While it seems like a ninja trick,” writes Carl Richards in this short, amazing NYT article, ‘Start Listening to Burnish Your Reputation as a Trusted Adviser,’ “it turns out that science backs up the idea that the best way to get people to like and trust you is to listen to them.”

Mark Twain meme

Richards relates several stories businesspeople paying attention to others, and quietly earning their trust and respect. This isn’t just because we all love to talk—though that must be part of it. We also understand, subconsciously, that good listeners know and understand more than constant talkers.

Listening will work even more wonders for your personal relationships.

Like any diet and workout regime, learning to focus on others and listen actively probably won’t have an immediate payoff. (And, in an unfortunate extension of that metaphor, it gets harder as you get older—you’re more set in your ways, and the people around you are more set in their evaluation of your listening skills.)

Stick with it, however, and you will become a better listener. You’ll begin retaining more information after every meeting, presentation, and intimate confab. You’ll be able to use that knowledge to enrich future interactions, and understand others more deeply. Eventually, if you stick with it, you will become both wiser and well liked. Watch.

Now, get out there and shut your mouth.

2016-10-21T11:03:09-05:00 By |Categories: Communication, Presentations, Psychology|Tags: , , , |