AllEarsListening tips from a once-terrible listener

You and I probably don’t know each other. To give you a little insight into who I am as a person, here’s a list of three talents that just come naturally to me: spelling skills, eating skills, and parallel parking skills. True, I never made it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but I regularly mopped the floor with my peers in elementary school competitions. And while I might have gotten the early boot if I ever made it to the National Spelling Bee, I would have fared slightly better in a Hot Dog eating competition (as long as I didn’t have to dip the bun in water—seeing that always makes me nauseous). But above all else, my true “super power” that has turned out to be so useful in my adult life is my parallel parking ability. I don’t mean to toot my own horn (pun fully intended), but I may be in the top 1% of parallel parkers worldwide. With a résumé like that, it’s clear that I’m a pretty well-rounded individual—but there’s one skill that’s conspicuously absent from that list, and it’s an important one. Listening is a skill that I’ve had to work extra hard on since I was a little kid. It’s been a long road, but I’ve learned some valuable lessons in my journey to become a better listener. I constantly have to remind myself of these things even today, and so I’d like to share with you these simple yet effective tips for being a better listener.

Number One: Be Honest.

I would hazard a guess that the number one reason people have trouble focusing and truly listening to someone is because we have so many other things (co-workers, projects, videos of goats yelling like humans, etc.) competing for our attention. We’re busy people and we have to carefully select what or who receives our full and undivided attention. And often times that means we have to be honest with someone and say “I can’t give you my full attention right now.” Sure, it might feel a little *awkward, but you’re really doing both you and the speaker a favor. By saying, “hey, I’d love to hear more about what you have to say, but I don’t have the time to listen to you at the moment,” you’re demonstrating a respect for their time as well.

*Bonus Protip: If you’re a sensitive pansy like me, consider keeping a bag of candy in your desk drawer. That way you can offer the would-be-speaker a consolation prize … sort of like “Hey, I’ve got more important stuff to focus on right now, but please enjoy this sour apple Jolly Rancher on your way back to your office.”

Number Two: Silence the Noise.

This is kind of a continuation of the point I raised on the previous tip. The amount of clutter and distraction we’ve got to cut through these days is staggering (and growing at an alarming rate)! Therefore, when you finally do commit to focusing and listening to someone/something, be resolute in that commitment by doing what you can to silence those potential distractions. Step away from the laptop. Silence your phone. And here comes the hard one: try and singularly focus your brain on the speaker (rather than thinking about that email you were about to send, the meeting you’ve got in 10 minutes, that adorably hyperactive pygmy goat, etc.) How can you do that? Why not practice a bit with a little meditation?

Number Three: Check for understanding.

As I hinted above, I still struggle with my focus/listening skills. And, to me, there’s nothing more infuriating than fighting through distraction after distraction, really making an effort to listen, and still finding myself wondering what in the world I’ve been listening to for the past 5 minutes. That’s where frequent “pit stops” in the conversation to check for understanding can be particularly handy. I’m a big fan of repeating back to the speaker my interpretation of key points or action items, not only at the end of the conversation, but even during the conversation. I find that one misunderstanding can derail an entire discussion, so I find it better to start the back-and-forth “so what you’re saying is…” dialogue as early as possible. Is it the most efficient means of communication? Maybe not. Could it potentially irritate the speaker? Possibly. But it’s a whole lot better than having to call him or her back in the room a day later and have them repeat the entire conversation.

There you have it—three simple tips for improving your listening skills, which is something that we can all benefit from. Good luck to you all as you work to tune out the noise and focus on what’s really important!

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