Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

By: Shane Bender

I made the list. On Facebook, there was a list posted of the worst listeners by name. It was targeted toward men and of course my name “Shane” was there. I think my wife would agree.

In my Toastmasters Club, we have a role called “The Listener”. The job is to listen carefully to the meeting and provide a quiz at the end. It was harder than you think. But we recognize that listening is an important part of communication.

Have you ever been caught zoning out in a conversation and didn’t know what was being said?  This has happened to me in meetings, church, lunches, etc. I think it might be harder than ever because phones and Fitbits are vibrating while the number of email notifications keeps increasing at the same time. I have 4 kids, and they all want to talk at once. It is so noisy, so how do we actually listen better?

I am going to admit that I am far from an expert in this area, so I did some research. Below are 5 ways to improve listening skills.

1. Take Notes

I don’t think many people take notes anymore, and very few people use paper. I find myself taking notes just so I retain what is being said and remember it better. It is even better to use paper since it uses different parts of your brain. One particular study found that students who took handwritten notes remembered the information much longer than those who used a computer. I am pretty sure those who took no notes remembered very little.

I realize that this will not work at a networking event or party, but it is worth a try whenever you can. Also, it does make the other person feel like you are listening.

2. Clear Your Mind of Distractions

As mentioned before, distractions and multitasking are not helpful. We have to put the phone down and strive to make eye contact. If you are working on something, write it down to clear your head before talking with someone else.  Try to keep your talking to 20% to 25% of the conversation. Drop any assumptions of what might be said. Check out “Tuning In: Improving Your Listening Skills” for more information.

3. Ask Questions

I have found that asking questions is a good form of staying engaged in the conversation. People like to be asked questions, and you have to listen enough to ask more questions. If you can’t think of a question to continue the conversation, you can ask a clarifying question to make sure you understand what is being said. If you are in a lecture or seminar in which you can’t ask a question, just write down questions on that paper I mentioned before.

4. Eye Contact and Body Language

Eye contact is an obvious choice, but it can be hard to do. We might see someone else and look over their shoulder. It is easier to listen when you have an open body language which includes legs and arms uncrossed. Even a genuine smile and leaning in will improve your listening skills, and not to mention, your appearance of listening.  I think it is interesting that appearance of listening and actually listening does seem to go hand in hand. We know that nonverbal communication is important and makes up a large percentage of communication in general. I saw one study say up to 93% is nonverbal. Now that seems high, but even at 50/50, it should be seriously considered.

5. Stay Present

I know this is being talked about a lot now. There are meditation practices that help.  I think the most practical thing is that we really can’t think about the past, present, and future at the same time. Daydreaming and thinking of what you are going to do later that day isn’t very efficient, and it certainly will not make you listen well. Sometimes just some deep breaths through your nose for 4 seconds in and 4 seconds out can help you focus and get present. I read once that you should wiggle your toes to get present. This can work as long as you don’t focus on your toes and forget what is being said. Yes, this did happen to me. This can be difficult to conquer if you are very busy and bouncing around all the time. When we struggle to get present, we know there is a problem because life is too stressful living in the past, present, and future.

Now, the goal of this is to see if I can practice all of these things in the next week. I am sure my wife will let me know how I scored.