How To Be A Better Listener

How To Be A Better Listener

If you’ve ever caught yourself forgetting someone’s name just seconds after you were introduced, you know that “d’oh!” feeling of being caught red-handed being a horrible listener. 

It doesn’t take a ton of self-awareness to realize that you just weren’t present in the moment while being introduced to that new person. And it follows that “being present” is what needs to happen next time, so you remember Karla… no Beverly… no Susan’s name.

But what does that mean, to be present? And how do you learn to listen for what’s not being said? This important ability could have positive impacts on all your relationships in life: family, friends, colleagues, and even acquaintances like what’s her name. The good news is that how to be a better, more empathic listener, is indeed something you can learn. Here is how to get started.

The characteristics of a good listener

We all have that one friend who is a joy to be with, the kind you can spend a whole afternoon talking to. Not only does the conversation never grow dull, but they make you feel like the most interesting person in the world. They’re not just a great conversationalist, though that’s obviously part of it. At the heart of it all, they’re a great listener, which is the key component. 

Here are 5 ways to be a great listener:

  1. Don’t interrupt someone when they are speaking, and don’t begin thinking of what you’re going to say next before they’re done. 
  2. Understand and honestly accept that other people have unique viewpoints and opinions.
  3. Ask questions that matter. Be genuinely curious about this person and what they are saying to you. Try phrases like “how did that make you feel?”, and “tell me more”.
  4. Let all your senses inform the experience of speaking with this person, allowing more than just your ears to tune in to what’s happening.
  5. Stay present. Make an effort not to let distractions pull focus from your conversation.

What is empathetic or empathic listening?

Empathic listening helps a person develop a stronger understanding of not just what is being said, but the entire point being communicated, on an intellectual and emotional level. It takes into account the nonverbal and emotional cues your counterpart is giving off, to help paint a more detailed picture of what is going on in this person’s world and connect you on a deeper level with them.

What is active listening?

Research tells us that we remember only about 25-50 percent of what we hear. So if you have a 10 minute conversation with your spouse, best friend, child, colleague, or customer, you’re both actually listening to each other about half the time. Which half were you present for? And them? Active listening is a learned method of being a better listener.

How is empathic listening different from active listening?

The great thing is that empathy is a learned behavior too, and when it comes to the difference between empathic listening and active listening, it’s the emotional piece. Active listening helps us develop our ability to pay attention, the “muscle” to be a good listener and retain the information. In addition to developing the muscle, empathic listening helps us understand what isn’t being said.

Listening for what isn’t being said

Management consultant, educator, and author Peter Drucker once said, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” What does that mean? Essentially it comes down to nonverbal cues like the tone with which the story is delivered, the hand gestures used, or not used, a lack of eye contact, too much eye contact, their general “vibe”. Listening for what’s not being said involves reading into and interpreting everything that’s happening apart from the words themselves that are floating in the air.

Nonverbal communication

Nonverbal cues have been a cornerstone of human communication for centuries. In “The Advancement of Learning” from the year 1605, Francis Bacon notes: “the lineaments of the body do disclose the disposition and inclination of the mind in general, but the motions of the countenance and parts do not only so, but do further disclose the present humour and state of the mind and will.”

Judee Burgoon, Professor of Communication, Family Studies, and Human Development at the University of Arizona, is credited with identifying seven different nonverbal dimensions of communication:

  1. Kinesics or body movements, including facial expressions and eye contact.
  2. Vocalics or paralanguage, like our volume, pitch, and cadence in speech.
  3. Personal appearance, how someone dresses and grooms themselves.
  4. Our physical environment, the cleanliness of it and the artifacts or objects within it.
  5. Proxemics or personal space, how much physical space we need.
  6. Haptics or touch, whether we like to touch or be touched.
  7. Chronemics or time, how we punctuate the words we use, our willingness to wait our turn.

How does nonverbal communication play out in real life?

As you can see, there are so many things going on when having a conversation with someone. It’s clearly not only an exchange of ideas, but of energy too. Everyone brings not just our day, but our whole life… our whole being… to every interaction we have. We can’t really help it.

So if you’re trying to be a more empathic listener, brushing up on the myriad ways (apart from words) that communication is happening, is crucial. 

Nonverbal communication is a complement to what is being said. Just as important as the words themselves, nonverbal communication helps us create depth and meaning around our experiences and how we relay them to others.

We can use nonverbal signals to emphasize our words, such as with hand gestures and changes in the volume, pitch, or cadence of our speech. Nonverbal communication is used to share in the conversational roles of speaking and listening. For example when I’m done speaking, I gesture for you to say things now.

Nonverbal behavior is also used to repeat and reinforce what we say, like when we say yes to something and nod our head too. Or we can use it to replace words altogether… like simply nodding our head to get the point across. We might also use nonverbal communication to confuse the point. We might say we had fun, but seem unenthusiastic when recounting our day, or end a text with no punctuation, saying yes perhaps when we really want to say no.

How to be a better listener

By tuning in to what’s not being said, we can not only have a better exchange with the person right in front of us, but experience life as a whole on a deeper level. Our lived experience is happening in a variety of dimensions, and each one offers valuable information to help us process the truth, and connect with others more meaningfully. Being a better and more empathic listener is largely a matter of simply tuning in, and staying tuned in, to all that’s happening… not just the words being said.


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