9 Strategies To Become A Fantastic Listener

by  John Stoker  |  Leadership Development
9 Strategies To Become A Fantastic Listener

Not long ago I was reflecting on a conversation that I had with my spouse. I thought that I had not been a very good listener in a conversation that we had about an hour earlier.

Knowing that she was in the next room, I called out to her, “Stephanie, I was thinking about that conversation we just had, and I was thinking I need to apologize for not listening or giving you my full attention when you were talking. Will you forgive me?”

She responded, “For which time?” I thought I had blown it, but I had no idea of how bad of a listener I had been. That is the problem. Most of us think that we are average to good listeners. Unfortunately, that is the status we all occupy in our own minds.

Most of the time, our thoughts are what get in the way of being an effective listener. We have this little voice in our head that is constantly judging, evaluating, criticizing, analyzing, and editorializing everything that we hear. When I did research among a number of managers and asked them why they didn’t listen, they gave the following explanations:

“Sometimes I listen to see if I agree or not.”

“I usually am thinking about what I should say in response.”

“I listen to understand if what the person is saying will have a negative impact on me.”

“I don’t listen to some people because I already know what they are going to say.”

“I know I don’t listen because I am thinking more about what I am thinking than to what the person is saying.”

Notice in all of these responses, the individual is preoccupied with their thoughts. When this happens, they are obviously not listening nor capturing the sum total of the messages that are being sent.

Here are some easy-to-use strategies that will help you become a fantastic listener:

  1. Recognize & Suspend Your Thinking – If your thinking is a distraction, then you must learn to manage the voice in your head. Recognize that the little voice is competing for airtime and set it aside. If you can’t do it, it would be better to excuse yourself from the conversation and reschedule when you can give your full attention. Listening and attending to others is not something that you can fake until you make it. People know when you are not present.
  2. Don’t Assume Anything – If you find yourself making negative judgments about what the other person is saying, shift to asking questions that will confirm or dis-confirm your thinking. For example you might ask, “What data led you to that assumption? or Help me understand how you came to your opinion.” Asking good questions will add depth to your understanding and a richness of learning about the individual. This won’t happen if you make assumptions and never ask a question. Ask yourself, “What will I miss if I don’t ask?”
  3. Eliminate Distractions – We are so preoccupied with the use of electronic gadgets today. It is a wonder that anyone can give their full attention to another individual. Close your laptop and silence your phone and put them outside your reach. Giving your attention to a person and then allowing your electronic devices to interrupt the conversation is highly disrespectful. You wouldn’t want to be interrupted by someone answering their email or an incoming text in the middle of a conversation that you wanted to hold. Do people the service of giving them your full attention.
  4. Demonstrate Good Body Language – Use clusters of nonverbal behaviors to show interest in what people are saying. For example, mirror the eye contact that is being given to you by the person who is speaking. Lean slightly toward the person to show interest. Use your hands in a gesture of making an offer when sharing an idea, or gesture with your fingers that you want to hear more. Sit on the same level as the person to whom you are speaking. Turn your body to face the person and allow for ample spacing so that they will feel comfortable. Using your body to demonstrate interest in what the other person is saying will put the other person at ease and communicate that what they have to share is important to you.,/li>
  5. Clarify Your Understanding – At any time during the conversation, don’t hesitate to summarize what you believe you have heard. Doing so demonstrates that you are trying to understand the individual. Don’t worry if the person tells you that you have not entirely understood what they were saying. They will correct any misinterpretations that you may have made. What is important is that you demonstrate your understanding while checking the clarity of your understanding.
  6. Listen More Than You Speak – We were given two ears and one mouth. We ought to listen twice as much as we speak. As you listen, don’t steal the other person’s talking turn. Stealing a turn occurs when you grab the focus of the conversation away from the speaker and then share your experiences or stories to complement the message of the speaker. People with different conversation styles may do this as a way of establishing common ground. But such behavior is unusually looked upon as very disrespectful. If you are not asking questions to deepen the conversation or to clarify your understanding by summarizing, then you are probably talking too much. Additionally, those who are more assertive frequently cut people off or finish their sentences. Such behavior is also not acceptable.
  7. Be Patient – Learning to listen and give your full attention to another person is not easy even for a practiced listener. Learning to give your full attention to someone over a longer period of time if you are preoccupied with all the things that fill up your agenda requires patience and focus. Before you listen to another, you would do well to assess the amount of time you can give to listen to an individual. If you realize that you may not have the time because of other concerns, then schedule a time when you will have the time. For example, you might say, “This is a really important conversation and I would like to talk about it more. Unfortunately I have another meeting scheduled in a few minutes.  Would it be alright if we picked up the conversation when I return?” You need to take responsibility to manage your listening more effectively.
  8. Ask For Meaning – One of strategies that will help you become a more effective listener is to realize that there is meaning behind the feelings, words, and actions that people express or display. If you are in doubt about the meaning of a person’s message, then ask for the meaning. For example, if you observed that someone seems to become defensive, you might say, “I am noticing that you are beginning to become upset. Tell me why.” Or if someone said something that you didn’t understand, you might offer, “After the meeting I heard you say, ‘Oh great! Now what are we supposed to do?!’ Can you tell me what you mean by that?” What is important is for you to observe what people are feeling, saying, and doing and then try to gain further understanding about what all of that means. Notice that this skill really requires that you give your full attention to the person and notice what messages they are displaying. The challenge is uncovering the meaning hidden behind the message.
  9. Apologize When In Doubt – It is not difficult to become unconsciously conscious in a moment and quit listening and attending. If someone calls you on your behavior, admit your distraction, apologize, and reengage. Offering a heart-felt apology will go a long way to building your relationships and establishing your sincerity.

Becoming a fantastic listener requires skill and practice. It also requires a degree of awareness on your part of where and with whom you need to improve your listening ability. We don’t intentionally go out of our way not to listen to people. We must realize that becoming an exceptional listener requires a conscious and deliberate effort to understand and connect with others. After all, everyone wants to know that they are heard and understood.

Which of the 9 strategies seem most likely to be effective for you? Tell me about it in the comments!
Photo Credit: iStock

About The Author

Articles By john-stoker
John Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. He has been in organizational development work for over 20 years helping leaders and individual contributors to learn the skills to assist them in achieving superior results. He has experience in the fields of leadership, change management, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Jane  |  01 Feb 2016  |  Reply

John, when I read articles, I try to think of something to add just to show that I read and was paying attention. I can’t think of anything else to add to your list. I have always been complimented on my listening skills. I’m not taking credit for it though. I would rather listen than talk any time. My favorite (because it’s what I work on all the time) is the tip on distractions. It might be impossible to remove distractions physically but mentally and emotionally, the only way to really listen is to think of conversation as heart to heart. Make your conversation all about the person talking and practice heart level listening.

John Stoker  |  01 Feb 2016  |  Reply

You make some wonderful points. I really like you comment on “heart to heart” listening. I have found to help me do that I will ask myself the question, “What would they be thinking or feeling in order to say or do that?” This helps me listen from their perspective. When I find that I don’t understand, then I ask questions to clarify or gain more information. Thanks for your response. J

John Smith  |  01 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Hi, John – great list and a solid post:)

Like Jane, I have nothing to add to this already comprehensive set of observations about one of the common things we do rather poorly much of the time:).

I would comment that the last bulletpoint about apologizing does not always show up in other treatments around listening, so I thank you for including it here. I believe that when we consider apology, not as a sign of weakness, but of ability and a strength-based action, we are in better relationship with others.

Actually, apologizing seems essential to really use the point before it about asking for meaning. There are at least two reasons why something in a conversation, discussion, or presentation is not clear: 1) The person explaining was unclear, or 2) You were not paying close enough attention. Regardless of which is true in a situation, when you apologize as you ask for clarification, I would imagine the discussion goes better than if you try to prove to the person that they were unclear:).

Thanks for a well-written and enjoyable post.


John Stoker  |  01 Feb 2016  |  Reply

I appreciate your comments on the importance of apologizing. I have found that when I am wrong or if my comments or actions have offended someone, the easiest way to clear the air and to move forward is to apologize. Once a sincere apology has been given, it is much easier to move on.

However, I have found from listening to the apologies that are frequently offered that they are often not apologies at all. For example, I recently heard someone say, “I am sorry that you didn’t understand me!” When I heard this, I almost started to laugh because the person wasn’t really apologizing. They were still blaming the person who didn’t understand. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Great insights! J

Thomas Wharton  |  02 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Well written and some great points John. As an executive coach, my need to really listen is heightened. I use a technique called “active listening” where I attempt to capture the feeling and content of discussions. I then very often, bounce it back to them for clarification. You reference this in point #8 “ask for meaning”.
Thanks for a great article.

John Stoker  |  02 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Thanks Tom. Great idea about active listening. When people ask me what that means, I usually answer that means you have to do something, at least more than just hear the sound of their voice. I appreciate you sharing how you approach a coaching conversation from the attending perspective. Thanks for the comment. J

Tom Frame  |  03 Feb 2016  |  Reply

This may be labeled as being poor listener but bear with me. Being a good listener is important. To me, being an active listener is even more important. Listening is part of a two way street on the other side is the person doing the talking. There in lies the problem, sometimes that is what they are doing is talking. They don’t want an active listener, they just want to talk and be heard. Don’t interrupt. Don’t ask clarifying questions. Don’t restate what you heard to make sure you heard and understood it correctly. Effective communication is a two-way street.

John Stoker  |  03 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Totally agree. Sometimes when folks are just talking and talking and I don’t know what they want I will ask them, “Is there something that you want from me?” Often they will stop and think and just say, “No, I just want someone to listen.” This is great to do because I can quiet my inner voice and just give them my full attention. Thanks for adding to the conversation! J

Donna Cunningham  |  03 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Hello, I am a student at a college. I am going to be a social worker when I graduate. I have found that I need to work on my listening skills and will need these skills in social work. I thank you for sharing your ideas. I plan to use these ideas while learning in my classes, and to use them while practicing different areas I am learning. One of these is doing a biopsychosocial history on another student.

Thanks again,

Donna Cunningham

John Stoker  |  03 Mar 2016  |  Reply

You are very welcome!! Let me know how it goes.

Di Bennett  |  03 Mar 2016  |  Reply

I really enjoyed your article John. As a professional mentor, I always employ the 80/20 rule. The mentee (or whoever I am listening to) speaks for 80% of the time, and I talk for only 20% of the time, so it’s important to ask key, open ended questions during my 20%. My pet hate is to hear the one who is supposed to be the listener, “stealing a turn” as you point out in Point 6. Grabbing the focus of the conversation away from the speaker and sharing your experiences or stories never complements the message of the speaker. It simply takes the focus off them and puts it squarely on you. We should never say, “I know exactly how you are feeling because I……” We are all unique beings and in my experience no one ever “feels” exactly the way you do. We need to always be aware of this and let them tell exactly how they are feeling. I’ve read your blog for the first time, John, but it certainly won’t be the last. What you are saying is really helpful – so thank you.

John Stoker  |  03 Mar 2016  |  Reply

I totally agree with your points. Hopefully I was able to add something to your quiver that will help you with mentoring practice. Thanks for commenting.

Rana Alsadi  |  05 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Thank you for your points. Very helpful and productive if used correctly .
As Counselor working with children and adolescents I had to listen with my mind and heart, and therefor I had a lot of that little voice in the head leading me to conclusions that might not be helpful for my client. I recently added a life coaching certification to my career. It taught me how to take control of the little voices in my head and listen more.
What I am trying to say , it takes a lot of self control and discipline to achieve a great listener technique and become more successful in any relationship.

John Stoker  |  24 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Thanks for your comments. Sorry it took me so long to respond. Awareness is the key to so much that we do in creating REAL Conversation. Awareness starts with ourselves. Being able to recognize that “little” voice in your head is one of the first steps to being able to silence it and make a different choice about how you will listen and respond in the conversation. Best wishes to you.

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