Could You Say That Again? 5 Tips to Build Better Relationships Through Active Listening

10 min read

photo-1454625191319-786c05137ef5Think about the last conversation you had.

Who were you talking to? What were you talking about? What did you learn? Most importantly, did that conversation deepen your relationship, hinder it, or leave it unchanged?

If your last interaction had no positive impact on your relationship, it was wasted time. And it was probably wasted because you didn’t listen to a word the other person said.

Don’t get me wrong; you probably heard them. But there’s a world of difference between hearing someone and listening to them.

The most successful people in life are usually the best listeners. Why? Because success is often measured in the relationships you’ve built, and the quality of your relationships is a direct result of your ability to listen.

But don’t take my word for it. According to research by Wright State University, when you listen effectively you will, “get more information from the people you manage, you will increase others’ trust in you, you will reduce conflict, you will better understand how to motivate others, and you will inspire a higher level of commitment.”

Think your relationships might benefit from that? We’re going to talk about how to become better listeners but, first, let’s take a closer look at the difference between listening and hearing.

The difference between listening and hearing

A lot of people think they’re great listeners when, really, they just have good hearing. But as has pointed out, listening and hearing are two very different skills.

Hearing is the involuntary act of sound entering your ears and being sent to your brain. Listening is the voluntary process of connecting to and making sense of the sounds you hear. The truth is, most people have great hearing and poor listening.

The reason being is that listening requires being present and staying focused on the conversation at hand; something increasingly difficult in our social media- and disruption-driven world.

And in a world where no one feels listened to, great listeners are king. The most successful people know when someone feels listened to, they feel safe, valued, and important.

Imagine if you could leave each interaction having made the other person feel that way. What would it do for your relationships? Your life? Your business?

It’d transform them. And I’ve got news for you: You can have that and more. All it takes is a shift in mindset. So without further ado, here are five tactics to become a noticeably better listener.

1. Increase your natural curiosity

Curiosity is the most powerful relationship building tool because curious people are the best listeners.

When you’re genuinely curious about someone, you fully engage with them; your responses become more meaningful than “yeah,” “no,” and “uh-huh.”

I’ve already talked about three ways to send your creativity through the roof, but let me give you one more: Commit to active curiosity.

Before you enter any interaction, whether it’s a one-on-one conversation or a 15-person meeting, commit to learning something new. Here’s how that might look in practice.

Say you’re about to meet with Pete, the founder of a marketing data analytics startup. Before you enter that meeting, say to yourself, “I am going to learn about the assumptions Pete had going into his business that were proven wrong.”

Then, as soon as the interaction is over, perform a meeting debrief to store that information in your long-term memory.

When you enter conversations with this commitment, you unleash your curiosity and prime your brain for learning. You’ll be more alert, engaged, and involved in everything you do.

2. Ask meaningful, open-ended questions

Because of their natural curiosity, the best listeners are also expert questioners. And the best questioners practice what we call the “second dart.”

With the second dart approach, questions come in pairs. That means asking an opening question and following up with a clarifying question. Let’s take a closer look.

Here are five examples of opening questions:

  • “How did you …”
  • “What do you know about …”
  • “When was the last time you …”  
  • “What happened when …”
  • “Have you ever … “

The biggest adversary to listening is assuming, so follow your opening question with clarification questions like:

  • “Let me make sure I understand you. Do you mean …”
  • “Could you tell me more about …”
  • “Could you give me an example of …”
  • “How does that affect you?”
  • “What have you tried so far?”

As Scientific American points out, people love to talk about themselves. The more time they spend doing so, the likelier they are to describe the conversation as positive and enjoyable. So let them talk.

3. Avoid mental and physical distractions

According to Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, “Listening is active. At its most basic level, it’s about focus and paying attention.”

You might think you’re a good multi-tasker, but I’ve got bad news for you: You’re not; not if you want to be an active listener. Real listening is about singular, focused attention.

Besides, even if you could check your email, book a meeting, and listen intently at the same time, the other person doesn’t know that. All they see is someone who doesn’t have enough respect for them to put down their phone and pay attention.

Active listening means avoiding and dismissing distractions, both physical and mental. For example, some common physical distractions are phones, computers, watches, and anything else that beeps, taps, or vibrates.

Mental distractions aren’t always as obvious, but can be just as disruptive to the listening process. Mental distractions are thoughts like:

  • This is a waste of time.
  • I wonder what that text says?
  • What’s next on my to-do list?

As an active listener, it’s your responsibility to fight distractions. Physical distractions are usually pretty simple to counteract: Keep your phone in your pocket, turn off your monitor, and face away from the clock.

Mental distractions can be a little trickier. Before you can fight them, you need to identify the trigger; the recurring actions or words that cause your mind to wander. Here’s how.

Any time you feel your mind distracted, tune into what’s going on and what’s being said. After enough observation, you’ll start to notice some commonalities. For example, maybe you get distracted when:

  • Finances are discussed,
  • The speaker has a low-energy, monotone voice, or
  • Someone makes a specific facial expression,

Each of those can spark a distracting thought in your mind, and you won’t even realize it until 45 seconds later, when you haven’t heard a word being said.

Once you’ve identified your triggers, you can mentally label them as distractions when they arise and make an active decision to focus on the person and conversation at hand.

4. Listen to understand, not to reply

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

And Bernard Ferrari, author of Power Listening, describes these conversationalists as, “people who regard conversations as opportunities to broadcast their own status or ideas.”

Don’t be those people.

As a general rule, and this might come as a shock: Unless you’re specifically asked for your opinion, keep it to yourself. The goal is to understand them, not have them understand you.

You accomplish this with tip #2: Asking questions.

When you ask questions, you help other people analyze their own thoughts, feelings, and solutions. Their answers help you better understand them, and allow them to better understand themselves.

And the solutions they come up with “on their own” will usually be better than anything you could have said. As an added bonus, they’ll probably attribute the solution to you, even though they’re the ones that came up with it. All you did was seek to understand.

5. Master your own body language

You don’t just want to be a good listener; you want others to know you’re a good listener. The most effective way to send that message is through body language.

Active listeners all share three key physical attributes that create an environment where people feel listened to and understood.

1. Physical stillness

Physical unrest is usually the result of mental unrest. Next time you find yourself fidgeting, take these two actions:

  1. Take three deep breaths. As pointed out by Harvard Medical School, deep breathing relaxes both the mind and body. To get the full benefits, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth for ten seconds each.
  2. Relax tensed muscles individually. When you feel yourself shift, fidget, or tap, bring your attention to that specific part of your body and focus entirely on relaxing the muscles in that region.

The calmer your body, the calmer your mind. And the calmer your mind, the better listener you’ll be.

2. Maintained eye contact

Eye contact is one of the most effective ways to show someone that you’re listening, interested, and engaged. Here are two tips to maintain eye contact through the entire conversation.

  • Focus on the bridge of their nose. If constant eye contact is uncomfortable for you, focus on the bridge of their nose. They won’t know the difference.
  • Gaze, don’t stare. Effective eye contact isn’t an intense stare, it’s a soft gaze. You can accomplish this look by relaxing and slackening the muscles around your eyes and mouth.

You could be the best listener in the world but, if the other person doesn’t see you listening, it won’t mean a thing.

3. Open posture

Your body language should communicate not only that you’re listening, but also that you’re interested. Here are two ways to use your posture to keep the conversation open and free.

  1. Don’t cross your arms. Crossed arms say, “I’m not open to what you’re saying.” Instead, either keep your hands at your side or folded in your lap.
  2. Lean forward. A slight forward lean shows others that you’re eager to hear what they have to say. Just make sure to respect their personal space.

A word of caution: Body language is an advanced listening skill. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in it that you forget to listen to what the other person is actually saying.

If body language becomes a distraction, put it on the backburner. Turn the other four tips into unconscious habit, then reincorporate body language into your listening routine.

The 14-day listening challenge

The five tips above are all proven strategies, but knowledge is useless without execution.

So here’s my challenge to you: Don’t put off becoming a better listener. You have the tools and knowledge, so start now.

You probably have a meeting planned for the next couple days. During that meeting, consciously practice each of the five strategies above.

At the end of the meeting, record the results in a notebook with questions like:

  • What did I learn?
  • Is our relationship now stronger, weaker, or the same?
  • Was the other person more open and engaged than usual?
  • Was I primarily present or distracted?
  • What were my distractions?
  • What did I do right?
  • How can I listen more effectively in the future?

If you do that with every major interaction for the next two weeks, you’re going to see a massive improvement in the way you listen and speak. And, even better, so will others.

I want to hear about your success. At the end of two weeks, review your journal and share your results in the comments below.

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