How to Listen With Understanding

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Few experiences leave one feeling more validated and "seen" than when they’ve been truly heard by someone. Unfortunately, most people lack the ability to listen attentively. The trouble is that it seems society has forgotten the true significance of listening, and with more and more interactions happening online and through text, it may be that people are simply losing their focus on dialogue.

Mastering the ability to listen as well as you speak is a skill that will transform your ability to influence and connect with others.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Forget the world around you and focus entirely on the person speaking. When you give him your undivided attention and listen for understanding, you might be amazed at how much it can transform and deepen your relationships with everyone from the food cart guy to your boss.

What Is Active Listening?

To truly listen and understand what’s being said means making the choice to be 100 percent present in the moment and allowing the speaker to captivate your attention. This form of listening is taught by business schools and coaches, and it’s not about just nodding and smiling your way through as she speaks. It involves actively participating in a way that drills home the fact that you’ve been paying attention and absorbing her speech.

After conducting a study of 3,492 business professionals, these are four truths that the Harvard Business Review discovered behind “great listening”:

  1. Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. 
  2. Good listening includes interactions that build a person’s self-esteem.
  3. Good listening is seen as a cooperative conversation.
  4. Good listeners tend to make suggestions.

These behaviors mentioned in Harvard’s study report are all indicative of active listening, which is defined as communicating in a way that participants in conversations are focused on, comprehending of, and answering what is said to them. Active listening is effective at at home and at work, where it's often used for training management, developing the workforce and mediating disputes.

Active Phrases for Connecting

When listening well, part of how you show you’re on their page is by simply repeating ideas back to speakers and asking relevant questions as needed to really absorb the information. Some of the best phrases are:

  • “That must be hard for you.” Alternatively, phases like “that sounds tough” and “I’m sorry you’re experiencing that” can all convey deep empathy and awareness while hearing a story.

  • “How do you mean?” is a great phrase for trying to decode something that hasn’t quite landed clearly for you. Other statements can be great for this too, like “I’m not sure I get that. Can you tell me a bit more?” or “I’d like to understand that better. Can you tell me a bit more?”

  • “Really?” While it’s not good to use one-word interjections like “uh-huh” and “cool,” ones like “really” and “wow” can convey surprise and shock, encouraging the speaker to reveal more as well as feeling supported.

  • “I’ve been noticing–” This is a statement that shows you’re picking up on visual cues and body language too.

  • “Let me be sure I’m getting this right–” is a great way to repeat back some of the ideas or comments the speaker has been sharing to ensure you’re following well and to make sure he's feeling heard.

Types of Listening

The Harvard Business Review says there are six levels or types of listening:

  • Level 1: The listener tells the speaker she's available and interested in talking, so the space feels safe and focused.

  • Level 2: Anything that can be a distraction – smartphone, newspaper – gets set aside so the speaker feels the listener is truly focused on her.

  • Level 3: This is the active listening level where the listener asks questions and repeats messages shared thus far to show he's fully engaged and interested.

  • Level 4: The listener listens with his eyes and not just his ears as he absorbs the estimated 80 percent of what’s only being said through nonverbal cues and the eyes. From fidgeting to glowering, so much of what’s “said” isn’t in words, and this active listener picks up on it.

  • Level 5: The listener hears the speaker’s emotions and feelings about the subject at hand and will show her empathy and validate them with no judgment, just support.

  • Level 6: The listener posits clarifying questions that can not only make things clearer for him but can also help reframe the topic for the speaker.

Listening Well Has Its Rewards

Being a great listener isn’t just a shrewd move for those looking to get ahead. It’s a necessary skill for anyone looking to have great relationships in all aspects of life.

  • Relationships: Whether it’s with family and friends or a a new team member or coworker, listening actively and being a safe sounding board can be transformative. There are times when people just want to speak and vent and be heard, and a common reaction by others is to give unsolicited advice or even try to fix what’s wrong. Sometimes, all the speaker wants is to vent about things for a bit so she can get it off her chest and then ride out the situation to the best of her ability. Being that safe port in a storm is invaluable.

  • Socializing: Meeting new clients, networking, building rapport – all of these are easier when you actively listen to them speaking and then practice engaged questions and comments. This tends to make an impression and will ensure they stay speaking to you a bit longer. Who knows –

    maybe you’ll make a new business contact from it.

How Not to Listen

If you need to say, “go ahead, I’m listening,” then stop because you’re already doing it wrong. Truly listening involves focusing on the person speaking like he's the last person on the planet. The cell phone needs to go away, the computer monitor needs to be turned off and the reading material needs to be put down. It’s all about the speaker.

If he's saying anything that resonates, don’t interject. Don't say “yeah” or “OK” or “uh huh” because it’s interrupting him and is rude despite being very common behavior. Don’t lean away from him either, as that signals detachment, and don’t cross your arms, as it can suggest that you're resistant to what he's saying. Don’t “top” the story with a “that reminds me” example from your life or experiences that can feel as though you’re trying to one-up the speaker.

Don’t dwell on small details or ask about something else you just remembered. Don’t look around or fidget. Don’t enter the conversation with an attitude of not expecting to learn anything.

It Takes Practice

It’s hard to focus on anything for long in the modern world. With videos on demand, fast food, smartphones and so much more, the art of being patient and mindful is a rare one indeed.

Practice with little steps first, like not interrupting people when they speak and not crossing your arms. Lean in, listen intently, make eye contact and watch their body language. In just doing that, you’ll become more focused and engrossed, and then questions and commentary should come more easily.

If you’re struggling with the ability to focus on people, it may be that you’re suffering from a scattered mind. Try techniques like meditation for a few minutes daily to see if you can quiet your mind a bit. Being mindful and present at any point in life is wonderful, but doing it when you have the opportunity to truly connect with others can be powerful and life changing.

References

About the Author

Steffani Cameron is a professional writer who has written for the Washington Post, Culture, Yahoo!, Canadian Traveller, and many other platforms. Some writing projects have included ghost-writing for CEOs and doing strategy white papers. She frequently writes for corporate clients representing Fortune 500 brands on subjects that include marketing, business, and social media trends.