Dear Lifehacker, I’m a terrible listener. I want to do better, but I have trouble paying attention. I miss what people say a lot and end up embarrassing myself and offending them. How can I become a better listener for everyone’s sake? Sincerely, Hard of Hearing
The lack of an ability to listen well stems from either the lack of a decent attention span or the desire to actually pay attention. Since you want to change and concentrate on what people say, let’s assume you do care about the words that come out of other people’s mouths. When other people talk, the mind has an opportunity to wander because it doesn’t have to process any specific actions. You have to trick it into believing it actually has something to do. That takes some work, but a few tricks can help you out.
People who listen well look a certain way. They appear engaged by making eye contact. They communicate listening mode with body language that covers their mouth (such as steepled fingers or just a hand placed gently in front of it). You want to fake this body language as naturally as possible. You want to make eye contact, but don’t give the speaker a death stare. You don’t want to look like you’ve trained your eyes on them. If you can’t make constant eye contact right away, just look at the bridge of their nose or a little below. You can also get away with looking at their mouth, because they’re talking. Eyes move naturally all the time, so look at them for most of the conversation but feel free to momentarily break contact now and again.
While it helps to cover your mouth a little to communicate your “listening mode”, you don’t want to go in and out of this body language like a robot. If you stare at them when you listen and immediately cover your mouth, you’ll look like a machine. The listener probably won’t realise your goal and just think you have some peculiar mannerisms. Let them start, and if you think they’ll talk for a while just shift your weight a little like you’re seeking a more comfortable position. When doing this, you can cover your mouth to demonstrate interest and lack of desire to interrupt. If you have trouble integrating this right away, put your focus on not fidgeting first. That’ll help you gain some concentration that you can put towards better body language.
This may seem like advice to a sociopath who needs to learn how to pass as a regular human being, but everyone has a few social skills that leave a little (or a lot) of room for improvement. When you don’t really know what to do or how to act, you have to fake it. Eventually you’ll get used to it and become it, downplaying any anxiety listening had caused. It seems kind of ridiculous, but it really helps. Once you start to act like a good listener, you will come to believe you are a good listener.
Watch the Speaker’s Body Language
Your body language matters to the speaker, but you have to watch them as well. Most of our communication comes from our bodies, so when you fail to actively listen it helps to understand body language cues so at least you’ll gain some context.
What do you want to watch out for? Start with the facial expression, because that’s easy. It’ll give you a road map of the speaker’s emotional state and you won’t have to hear a word. We all understand the basics: smiles and laughs point to joy, frowns don’t, and averted eyes signal discomfort. Closed body language (such as crossed arms) also disclose discomfort. Watch people as they talk without listening and you’ll start to get used to hearing with your eyes. These clues make it easier to figure out what you missed in a conversation, so practice looking for them. When you make a habit of it, you’ll naturally pick up on body language and won’t have to try anymore.
Learn to Speed-Listen
Speed readers blow through paragraphs using a pretty specific technique. They start in the middle of a sentence and read every third word or so. How are they able to skip so much text and still comprehend what’s going on? Thanks to our peripheral vision and a little fill-in-the-blanks trick our brains naturally provide, we can glean the meaning from text without reading most of it. Try reading this sentence in full:
I can raed tinghs out of oderr.
You most likely understood that sentence says “I can read things out of order” even though the letters in many of the words sit in the wrong position. When we read, we really only look at the first and last letters of a word and our brain assumes the rest based on what we sort of see. We also fill in words based on other words in a sentence. This causes mistakes from time to time, but usually it works so well we never even notice it.
So what does this have to do with listening better? While you can’t employ your peripheral vision to hear better, you can let your brain fill in the blanks. You’ll need to practice in order to get better, but once you do you won’t need to pay attention to everything a person says to understand them properly. You’ll only need to listen to the first sentence, the last sentence, and chunks of words in between. With that small amount of information you’ll know the following:
- The topic the speaker brought up and what to expect as they continue to talk
- Key words relating to their overall points
- What they expect from you when they finish talking.
You obviously can’t do this in a lecture or anywhere that requires you to listen to lots of details, but you can pull it off in a conversation. To accomplish this, you’ll need to practice these things:
- Put all your concentration into hearing the first sentence and understand what was said. In the beginning, you may want to try and keep your mind invested in a little bit of what comes after, too.
- Allow your mind to wander, but bring it back to the conversation whenever possible. Most people think the way they speak, so you’ll likely have pauses between thoughts and can quickly tune back into the conversation. You have to train yourself to pay attention briefly during these pauses. Even if you struggle to control your attention, your mind wanders because it enjoys that fragmentation. Use that to your advantage and switch out of your thoughts to focus on the speaker’s whenever you have a chance. Eventually it will become second nature.
- Use the eye contact you developed in the previous section to watch for changes in body language. When people get ready to wrap up their point and expect a response, they have a tell. That tell varies between people, but in my experience it regularly involves a slight shift in weight and attention directed back at themselves. For example, this can manifest itself as a scratch on the head (or elsewhere on the body). Watch people as they talk and you’ll start to notice when they’re finishing their final lap. When you do, start to focus and make sure you hear the last sentence. This sentence will tell you how they want you to respond.
You will make a lot of mistakes learning to do this, but you can recover easily. Keep these phrases in mind as you fail:
- “I’m so sorry, my brain just went on autopilot and I completely spaced out there for a second. What was the last thing you just said?” You don’t have to ask them to repeat everything, just the tail end. You’ll get enough from that to provide a response to move the conversation forward.
- “Sorry, I’m having trouble hearing you. There’s a lot of noise right behind me. Can you say that again?” Obviously you need a noisy environment to make this one believable.
- “Sorry, I don’t think I understood that last part. Sometimes my brain jumbles things up for no reason. Try me again?” Use this if you missed a lot and they’ll give you a quick summary. It helps a lot with people who tend to go on and on with minute detail (e.g. people like me).
As you get better at speed listening, you won’t need to bother with these recovery statements too often. When you gain the ability to listen selectively — yet still productively — despite your poor focus, you can use a better recovery method: ask a question. If someone decides to launch into a monologue about how they adopted a dog and the resulting stress, listen for those key words and the closing sentence. They may expect a statement out of you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask them a related question. For example, you could say this:
“Wow, that does sound stressful. What do you think you’re going to do about it?”
With that, you barely used any information they gave you but you responded to the emotional core of their speech. They feel stressed out, so you justified their feelings with an agreement. Most people crave this and will overlook the vagueness of a response because they essentially got what they wanted anyway.
Asking a followup question — one that doesn’t even have to directly relate to anything they said — helps in two significant ways. First, it redirects the topic to them so they have to think about what they just said. (Therapists use this all the time to help you make self discoveries, so why not pass that benefit along to your friends?) If you have them thinking about themselves and not your incredibly vague question, they won’t consider that you probably didn’t pick up much of what they said. Furthermore, they’ll actually repeat a lot of the information you missed as they give you an answer. You can use their answer to fill in more blanks and make it look like you heard what they said as the conversation continues.
Once you get these skills down you’ll just keep getting better and better at gleaning information from conversations you only listen to in part. While that may seem kind of horrible on the surface, as these methods allow you to mostly ignore people and let your minder wander instead, we’re trying to solve an unfortunate problem here. Your mind will wander anyway, whether you like it to or not, so you have to make the best of the situation and get as much information as you can despite your lack of listening ability. I’ve found that I can concentrate a lot more in a conversation now because I’ve employed these techniques, so your listening skills may actually improve anyway. If you want to listen better, you have to take baby steps — even ones that might seem a little unfair to the people talking to you.
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