5 Ways to Improve Active Listening Skills

“I just told you that 5 minutes ago. Were you even listening?”

How often have you heard that? When someone is speaking to us, we may hear the words, but often we are not really listening.

According to researchers, people only remember 25-50% of what they hear, according to an article in MindTools, a career skills site. What happens when the 50-75% you miss is the most important stuff? What about when the people you communicate with only listen to half of what you’re saying? Misunderstandings and potential conflicts seem inevitable.

You can take steps to improve your listening skills. And by doing so, you can become a better negotiator, a more productive professional, and a better friend, parent and spouse. Becoming a better listener requires “active listening,” which involves being present in the moment, focused on the person speaking and avoiding distractions. You make a conscious effort to not only hear what a person is saying but understand the context of what they are saying.

That may call for resisting the temptation to consider counterpoints while someone else is talking, as you risk missing their point while trying to formulate your own response without a clear understanding of the message. So what steps can you take to become an active listener? First, you should avoid these common communication blockers from psychologist John Grohol on the PsychCentral site:

  • Asking “why”; it can make people defensive
  • Telling someone “don’t worry about it,” or providing a quick reassurance
  • Advising or preaching, saying things such as “I think you should …” or “You need to …”
  • Patronizing statements such as “You poor thing …”
  • Interrupting; it makes the speaker feel you are not interested

Keeping those in mind, there are five steps you can take to become an active listener.

  1. Pay attention. Find a place to talk that is free from distractions and interruptions. Make sure you are both comfortable. Sit upright and focus on the other person. Make eye contact. Listen to their words and pay attention to their body language.
  2. Use body language. Make your posture open and inviting. Nod on occasion to let a person know you are following what they are saying. Smile and use small verbal cues such as “yes,” and “uh-huh,” to indicate you’re paying attention.
  3. Provide feedback and summarize what you hear. Summarize what you hear to confirm you are understanding clearly. Sometimes our own opinions and experiences can hamper our understanding, so it’s important to ensure that your assessment is, in fact, what they were trying to convey. Start with, “What I am hearing is…”  or “It sounds like you are saying. …”
  4. Reserve judgement. Don’t interrupt. Allow the speaker to finish their point before you respond or pose questions.
  5. Respond respectfully. Be honest in your response, but do not attack the speaker or insult him or her if you disagree. Calmly present your response with information and explanations that speak to your disagreement, but do not make it personal.
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