How Can We Become Better Listeners?

Listening to others is hard. If someone else says something you don’t agree with, the overwhelming impulse is not to listen, but to explain why you disagree.

But that impulse is not always correct. Often, you have to hear why someone believes something before you can try and change their mind. And that means it is important to listen to what they have to say, no matter how wrong-headed or incorrect you might think they are.

As a society, we are currently divided into two (or more) isolated camps. I often hear that we don’t talk to each other, but I think the problem is really that we don’t listen to each other.

Beyond our political or social climate, studies in management show that to make an effective team, the members of that team need to feel that they are heard. To get team investment in a particular strategy or course of action, all team members need to feel they have a stake in setting that course.

Even when arguing with a spouse or a romantic partner, it’s possible to hear the words, but to miss the underlying message that is causing the disagreement.

In each of these cases, listening to others is important. And yet it is a difficult skill to learn, to really listen to what others have to say. It seems like it should be easy to do — after all, we all know how much we want to be heard ourselves, so why do we find it so hard to allow others to feel like they are heard?

I think that maybe it is because we feel no one listens to us that makes us bad listeners. If I feel that the person I am talking to isn’t listening to me, then my effort is on making them hear me, not on hearing them.

So how can we break this cycle? How can we listen to someone else, and let them know that what they have to say is heard, so that they in turn can be willing to hear what we have to say? What are the tools that allow us to do that? How can we sort through the extraneous information, like insults or unnecessary detail, to really hear what is at the core of another’s message?

How can we become better listeners?

Related questions: What are our responsibilities to others? What is necessary to change your mind? What do we have in common? How can we encourage debate?

8 thoughts on “How Can We Become Better Listeners?”

  1. Let me propose two predispositions you should commit yourself to if you really want to be an active listener. First, you should try to find someone — or at least what they are saying — interesting. And second, if you care enough to engage in a conversation, you can gain a lot by asking questions before you offer up your own point of view.

    Last week, someone told me about the word “sonder:” the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. In fact, think about how you could become more of an empathetic person if you acted as if everyone is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. This would increase the likelihood that you’d want to learn more about other people’s lives and beliefs. Thus, you’d want to listen more.

    Now, how about practicing a predisposition to asking questions more often? Can you commit yourself to really wanting to hear what others say to the point when a few questions come to mind? If so, then ask those questions. If you truly cannot understand their point of view and no specific questions come to mind, then simply say, “I don’t understand. Can you tell me more?”

    What better way to set up a conversation or even an honest debate about an issue then if you welcome someone into a discussion with questions. They’ll feel valued; you’ll understand more.

    1. When you said “This would increase the likelihood that you’d want to learn more about other people’s lives and beliefs” I was surprised. In my experience I think there are a lot of people who don’t have enough empathy to want to learn about other people even if they learned about the word sonder.

      Also, this question in general is odd to me because this platform (the blog) means that the people reading the question are probably already listeners (interested parties that ask questions).

      I guess I want to know how to get people who lack empathy to listen? But perhaps that’s a million dollar question. Also all of these questions always just lead me to asking other questions 🙂

      1. Megan:

        I am working on a reply to your challenging questions. But my computer battery is almost dead. I just wanted to let you know that I’ll have a response in the near future.

        Suffice it to say, I do think some people lack basic empathy and are lost causes. (I agree with you.) But others are very empathetic, but they lack the skills of active listening.

        Still others are empathetic in some cases, in other cases not so much. I’m thinking specifically of the campaign I worked on in Minnesota to extend marriage equality to gay couples. I was taught how to talk to people in a way that drew out their thinking on the issue and got them to be more empathetic with those were denied this right to the point that they changed their position. (More on that later, battery almost dead.)


  2. I don’t think it will be too surprising when I say that a key factor in becoming a good listener is in asking questions. After all, I started this blog with that mission in mind.

    Asking a question is a signal to the other person — whether in face-to-face or online — that you are interested in what they have to say. But the content of the question, what it is about, can also help to indicate your own point of view or indicate your own interest. So a well-crafted question can serve multiple purposes.

    But a question, by itself, isn’t enough. Years ago, I started paying attention to really good interviewers, and I tried to study what it is that made them so competent at what they do. While many of them asked really insightful questions that elicited interesting or unexpected responses, I found it was often what happens after the question is asked that made the most difference.

    What was often done is that the interviewer would pay attention to the answer, oftentimes asking a follow-up question directly related to the response just given, or even gently interrupting the answer for some clarification on some point.

    This is in contrast to less-experienced interviewers, who would come prepared with a list of questions — often interesting — and would just let the person answer before moving on to the next question. The interview is not just a conversation, but instead is a chore, or a list of tasks (in this case questions) that need to be worked through before everyone can be done and go home.

    So for me, listening starts with a good question, and then it continues by paying attention to the answer, and using the response to help inform the direction of the rest of the conversation. Someone with experience can choose the questions to help direct where the conversation goes, and to help shine some light on what is being discussed. This way, both people (or groups) can be heard, and both can, with luck, learn something about each other (and maybe even change their own views, a little bit).

  3. I think one way to become a better listener is to make sure we really understand what the other person is saying.
    My oldest son, who has ADHD, can be hard to understand sometimes because his thoughts tend to flow faster than he can speak. My youngest son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, is also hard to understand because sometimes his thoughts and words don’t match up. They both have taught me to listen with the goal of comprehending what they are saying. I have learned to repeat back to them what I think they are trying to tell me, which they either confirm (and we move on) or deny (so I ask for clarification). This has really helped me to be a better listener with everyone that I communicate with.

    1. Cecily, wow, you’ve really been dealt a handful! And yet, something good has come out of this in that you’ve become a better listener, a skill I’m still trying to develop myself.

      I encourage readers of this blog to read other’s comments and give them a reply if possible, to show that someone is listening. Seems like most people, myself included, want to talk before they listen.

  4. I have a half-remembered quote that I think comes from a Minnesota writer, Bill Holm, that goes something like: “You have to listen to the music beneath the words.” People may have a different way of expressing themselves than you do. Or, they may be struggling to express a thought. Often, you have to listen beyond the words to get a sense of what people are trying to share with you, which may not even be what they are consciously trying to articulate.

    I think one way to do that is to recognize that people are sharing several different kinds of information with you at the same time. I participated in a reflective listening exercise where we practiced in small groups listening to each other’s stories for three different things: facts and data (the basic narrative of the story); emotions (the feelings in and underneath the story); and values (the principles or standards expressed or implied).

    It’s eye opening to realize the amount of information people share even in a brief conversation. And, it’s even more eye opening when it’s reflected back to you and you had no idea how much you were sharing and that some of it you were doing without even being aware of it.

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