How to Become a Better Listener: 5 Steps for Improving Your Life and Relationships
Blah, Blah, Blah -- Just Kill Me Now
Standing there thinking, “blah, blah, blah – just kill me now” as my friend prattled on, I realized what a horrible listener I'd become. The truth was I hated listening. I found it a chore – draining and boring – and often went to outrageous lengths to avoid it. Over the years, this cost me dearly in both my professional and personal relationships as people started to perceive me as someone who was cold, aloof, and just didn't care. I certainly didn't view myself that way, but I was beginning to understand why others did. I needed to make some big changes to become a better listener, but first I had to figure out why I had reached this point where I found listening so off-putting.
Listening Is Key to Improving Your Life and Relationships
Step #1: Figure Out Why You've Become a Horrible Listener
When I was in middle school, I thought about becoming a therapist, thinking nothing would bring me more satisfaction than listening to people's problems and helping them find solutions. Around that time, my parents had difficulties in their marriage and my mother turned to me as her confidant, counselor, and mentor. I was just a stupid, inexperienced teenager so, of course, I felt flattered to get included in these grownup matters. I gradually came to see hanging out with my peers as a waste of time – childish and trivial – and would choose to stay at home to help my mother sort out her mess of a life.
This role-reversal between my mother and me continued into my adulthood. Only the cast of characters changed when my father died and my mom began dating a host of men who all treated her badly (so she claimed). It wasn't until I was a married mom with a 3-year-old son diagnosed with autism that the dynamic between us finally imploded. I needed her to become my mom – my confidant, counselor, and mentor – but she didn't have it in her. It felt as though I 'd deposited money in a bank each week and now wanted to make a withdrawal but got told: “Sorry, we have no cash for you!” Without making a conscious decision, I stopped listening to people at this point – feeling duped and disillusioned.
People Love to Talk but Necessarily Listen
Step #2: Leave the Hurt Behind You and Realize How Much You Benefit From Listening
Because my mother used me as her unpaid therapist for many years, I came to resent listening. When she didn't return the favor, I became bitter and hurt. Without realizing it, I started to wear a suit of armor that shielded me from listening to people.
But, the truth of the matter is there are lots of benefits that come your way from listening. It's essential for building strong, meaningful relationships that bring joy into your life. While the relationship with my mom was one-sided, most relationships that involve real listening are reciprocal with both people getting their needs met, developing a deeper understanding of one another, and growing closer.
Here are the main benefits that come from listening:
You learn from someone else's knowledge, wisdom, and experience. The key here is to surround yourself with smart, kind, and capable people who you trust and admire. If you're not learning from what others around you are saying, you need to choose your friends more carefully!
You gain insight into how to solve problems in your life. After my son got diagnosed with autism, I started seeing a therapist once a week. She helped me see my situation in a whole new light, pointing out how depressed I was and how I needed to start doing positive things for myself – not just for my son.
You feel valued. When there's a good balance of talking and listening in a relationship, you feel satisfied and not overburdened. A healthy relationship energizes you and makes you feel special.
Step #3: Move from Passive Listening to Active Listening
My one-way relationship with my mother began to make me feel like a victim. I started to become more passive – saying less and putting up with more. While I didn't want to admit it, I was just a big detached ear to her. She needed someone – anyone – to listen and there was nothing unique about me except that I was in her vicinity.
To embrace listening again, I needed to seize control and move away from the victim role. I needed to become less passive and more active in conversations – more engaged and challenged. These are the habits I adopted:
Make eye contact. Eye contact is essential to making someone feel heard and respected. Look into her face and turn your body towards hers. Tilt your head a little to one side and nod often. The Power of Body Language: How to Succeed in Every Business and Social Encounter by Tonya Reiman gives many more useful suggestions on listening with your whole body and interpreting nonverbal cues.
Eliminate distractions. There were many years when I had small children and couldn't talk to someone without getting interrupted. Now that my kids are older, I place a huge emphasis on eliminating distractions – turning off my cell phone, ignoring disruptions, and finding a quiet, peaceful place to converse. I'm present in the moment -- focusing on what she's saying and not on formulating my response.
Encourage her to elaborate. I now look at listening as a fact-finding mission – peeling the layers to find out what's underneath. I prompt her to give more information by saying: “Go on. Tell me more.”
Ask questions. Asking questions shows genuine interest. Your curiosity lets people know you really care and aren't just waiting for your turn to talk.
Get clarity. People know you're sincere when you ask for clarity, saying: “Say that again, please” or “What do you mean by that?”
Repeat what she said. I always say her words back to her. This lets her know I am listening. It also lets her hear what she said, helping her understand whether she's successfully communicated what she's trying to communicate.
This Book Helped Me Appreciate the Huge Impact of Nonverbal Communication
This Book Got Me to Change Some Bad Habits so I Looked More Receptive When Listening and More Powerful When Speaking
Have you ever tried talking to someone who has her hands folded across her body? Her body language lets you know she's closed off to what you have to say. She seems intimidating and judgmental. Our nonverbal communication when listening and speaking is so critical, but many of us are unaware of it. I highly recommend this book because it got me thinking about nonverbal communication and made me change some bad habits.
Step #4: Don't Be a Doormat
During the years listening to my mother, I became a doormat. I got it into my head that listening meant agreeing with the other person and never giving a dissenting opinion. I thought people would like me more if I just went along with whatever they said. But I gradually started to feel bad about myself and regret all the times I was too timid to speak my mind.
Now I speak up and share my thoughts -- dissenting or not. This had made my relationships stronger and me happier. If people simply want a “yes man,” they know not to unburden themselves to me. It's through sharing our differing opinions and experiences that our relationships grow deeper and stronger and we learn from one another.
I Hated Listening Because It Made Me Feel Helpless
Step #5: Become a More Confident Person
I was weak in my relationship with my mother and let her dump all over me. It took years for me to get over this and see listening as something other than draining and demoralizing. To become a more effective listener, I had to re-define that role in my mind and see it as one of power, not helplessness. If people want me to listen, I now do it enthusiastically and enjoy the process. I'm no longer the victim. I'm no longer just an ear.