How To Really Listen In Conversations 

Listening: the poor man's talking. But your turn to pay attention to someone else's blah blah will come. Here's how to be the kind of listener you'd like to talk to.

Cash Nickerson is the author of The Samurai Listener, which is kind of a mashup of business advice and a how-to on listening that leans heavily on western ideas of the way of the Samurai. Fast Company interviewed Nickerson for some easy tips on how to improve your ability to not just hear what people are saying, but to really listen.

Get Off Your Phone

This is basic politeness, but if someone is talking to you and you're scrolling through Instagram, you are not paying attention. Much of our communication comes from more than words, and you're not noticing enough about someone to get the subtext. Unless they're on their phone, too — in which case I think they're probably saying they don't want to be having this conversation either.

Keep Your Opinions To Yourself

Not forever, of course. But when you're discussing something, you won't really be able to receive what the other person is saying if you can't let go of your ideas about what they're saying first. There are some opinions I personally don't ever want to let go of, but if you want to really understand someone's point of view, sitting through the end of it without interrupting will help.

"Listening helps you handle conflict, express respect and be a better leader," Nickerson says. "Unfortunately, most people don't remember because they don't hear it in the first place."

An article in Psychology Today says something similar, describing it as "consciously deciding to give input." You are leading someone so you can learn more, not shutting them down:

The good listener is secure enough to rationally decide whether, in any given situation, to add input or to just listen and possibly ask follow-up questions. Don't let your desire to impress trump what's best for the interaction and the desired outcome. In the right situation, restraint can be just as compelling. Do you add content to a conversation only when wise?

Do you? Or are you just listening to get revved up to talk?

Read Between The Lines

Another thing mentioned by Psychology Today is the importance of noticing what is not being said. They give the example of talking to someone who never wants to discuss personal relationships, but is always willing to chat about work. That's kind of a red flag if you're on a date, but great if you're looking for a business partner. And if, say, you were an investigative reporter, you would probably notice the topics that your subject kept turning away from — and push harder in those directions.

Most of us aren't conducting an interrogation, but still, there's a lot to learn about someone based on what they avoid talking about. Listen for the silences.

Work On Comprehension

A lot of misunderstandings can be avoided with a few simple questions. If you're not one hundred per cent sure what someone is saying, try to rephrase it and ask if that's what they mean. You won't look stupid — you'll look like you give a crap. That's all most people want.

Get to the Heart of It

Once you've got a hold of the facts, you need to understand someone's reason for sharing them. This is something I personally do when I'm interviewing a person for a story, or even when I'm on a date: I analyse what they're saying in the moment, but instead of responding with my own opinion, I double check.

"You've said A and B. Does that mean you believe C?"

That gives them the opportunity to clarify, or agree. People rarely tell you a story for no reason. Figuring out what that reason is is the challenge.

Keep Trying

This all sounds exhausting. It is! Listening actively is a skill that's honed, and one you can employ or not. There are also whole courses on listening, because not everyone you listen to is a good talker. Sometimes people are boring, meandering, and distracted. But sometimes they have useful information. You should know how to extract it.

Know When To Quit

Sometimes you just can't listen! I cannot pay attention to someone when I'm hangry, exhausted or stressed, and all three of those things can come up in the course of a long talk. Sunny Sea Gold wrote in Scientific American that she had been accused of being a bad listener by her husband. She interviewed psychology researcher John Stewart, author of U&Me: Communicating in Moments That Matter, in an effort to improve. Stewart said that it's very important to know when you're no longer able to pay attention:

"Genuine listening requires humility and curiosity — and neither can be successfully faked," Stewart says. If you're not feeling well, if you're hurried, rushed or overly stressed, you're not going to be able to be truly present and curious during a conversation, especially a tough one.

Convincing someone that it's time to pause is an entirely different skill from listening, but here's something you can say:

"I think this conversation is important, but I need some time so i can give it my undivided attention."

And if someone doesn't get that, they're the one who needs to work on listening.


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