There is a big difference between hearing what someone is saying and really listening to them. So, how does one go about being a better listener? Fortunately, recent research has shined a light on this, and we now know simple strategies to help improve listening skills…
The first way for someone to become a better listener is to ensure that they are actually listening to what the other person is saying, rather than waiting for a break so that they can say whatever was in their head. If people do not pay attention and consider what the other person is saying, it is likely that they will miss vital information, and therefore miss opportunities to learn.
Really listening to someone allows one to build better relationships and actually leads to the other person forming a more positive impression of the listener, as well as making it more likely they will cooperate with them.
- You have two ears and one mouth – use them in this ratio
Research has shown that when an individual talks a lot or is always the one to introduce new topics to the conversation, this can lead to negative connotations, such that they are seen as domineering or controlling. In order to facilitate effective conversation, everyone involved needs to contribute, listen and consider what the other has to say in equal ways.
- Be open minded
Research has demonstrated that students become inefficient listeners when they try to make the new knowledge that they obtain from conversations fit with pre-existing representations they already hold. This causes them to be close-minded and jump to conclusions.
One particular study demonstrated the extent to which this can occur. Students were taken to an office where they believed they were waiting for an experiment. However, unknown to them was that this office actually formed part of the experiment – when they left, they were asked to recall items they had seen in the office. The researchers found that the students were able to correctly recall more of the items that would typically be associated with an office, and in some cases falsely recalled typical office items that weren’t present.
- Focus on what is being said, rather than who is saying it
Unfortunately, people often hold biases and these can influence their views of others. Once we categorise someone as a ‘foe’ instead of a ‘friend’, it is likely that we will disregard what they say. Clearly, it is better to focus on the content, not the messenger.
- Use the Principle of Charity
The ‘principle of charity’ states that people should interpret what others are saying in the best possible light. We don’t always know someone’s motivation, so it is probably a good idea to interpret it in the most positive way, instead of jumping to negative conclusions.
- Pause for thought
The best listeners always pause for thought before replying. Recent research showed it to be an effective method, as it allowed participants to express themselves clearly and give more interesting answers. That one extra second to gather one’s thoughts can often be invaluable.
- Make eye contact
One of the most important non-verbal cues displayed by good listeners is eye contact. Eye contact is essential as it allows people to show that they are listening and that they respect what others have to say. It also increases the likelihood that they will remember the information from a conversation. In one particular study, when the speaker in a video was looking at the students, they were much more likely to remember what was said in comparison to when they were looking away.
- Ask questions
Asking relevant questions is a trait of a good listener, as it demonstrates that they have been listening and considering the information. Posing questions also stops miscommunications from occurring, by allowing the listener to check their understanding and clarify any information they are unsure of.
A growing body of evidence has demonstrated that there are a number of techniques people can use to develop their listening skills. For example, they can sustain eye contact, ensure they pause for thought before replying and be open minded throughout a conversation.
If students are able to improve their listening skills, it is likely they will come to agree with the words of Ernest Hemingway, who said: “I like listening. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully.”