6 Effective Listening Tips

They work for me in the classroom, and they will work for you too ... 

I have taught listening skills to my students more times than I can count, and to be honest, I have never liked teaching the subject. Not because listening skills aren’t important. Good listeners are engaging and make us feel important.

But every book or chapter that I have read on listening skills has been filled with generic advice like “be attentive,” or “paraphrase what the speaker says in your own words.” These tips are helpful, to a point, but they are also so vague that I don’t feel like I’m actually giving my students useful information. My students can likely sense that I don’t have faith in what I’m saying, and the credibility of my lesson is gone as soon as the words leave my mouth.

So you can imagine my relief and excitement when, this week, I finally found a book with listening tips that are concrete, teachable, and actually helpful.

I am teaching John Gottman and Joan DeClaire’s book The Relationship Cure to my Interpersonal Communication class. Combining tips from other great relationship writers, such as Dale Carnegie, and Gottman’s own original research, the authors develop a list of listening advice that is both actionable and effective.

Here are my favorites from the list of skills that they provide:

  1.  Focus on being interested, not interesting:  People have a basic human need to feel important. Help people fulfill that need by hearing out what they have to say and showing genuine interested. Focus more on the other person in the conversation and less on presenting yourself as successful or fascinating.
  2.  Start by asking questions:  Ask questions that allow people to elaborate. Ask open-ended questions, i.e., not questions that can be answered with a “yes,” or a “no.” For example, “How is your latest work project going?” Also, I personally find that many people will ask one question, get their answer, and then wait for their conversation partner to ask them a question in return. The conversation does not need to flow back-and-forth in this way. To get a good rapport going, ask a few questions in a row until your conversation partner is talking about something that interests them. Work to find that topic that excites them.
  3. Look for commonalities:  We are drawn to people who remind us of ourselves. It’s why alumni networks help people find jobs. If you grew up in the same city as a person you have just met, mention it. Sharing points that you have in common will help others open up to sharing more. Be mindful of sharing too much with someone you have just met though. We tend to like to hear details about biographical background, hobbies, and other general interests from new acquaintances—nothing more intense or personal.
  4. Respond with an occasional brief sound or nod:  When we are listening, we find ways to let the speaker know we are listening to them, even though we don’t want to interrupt to say, “Yes. I hear what you are saying, and I am listening to you.” We use what are called backchannel cues. As the speaker talks, we’ll simply nod our head or murmur “mmm hmmm,” “ok,” “yes.” These small utterances are important to let the speaker know that we are still with them, still paying attention.
  5.  Let go of your own agenda:  Don’t try to control how the speaker is reacting to what they tell you. Don’t try to fix their problem or emotional state. This advice can be especially hard to follow if someone is upset. But in true listening, your job is to be open and let the speaker unburden themselves to you. At least at this point, it’s not your job to help them fix the situation.
  6. Turn off the television and phone:  Gottman and DeClaire write to turn off the television in order to be a good listener … but their book was published in 2001. A bigger issue in 2016 is cellphones. When someone needs to be heard, put your phone away. Do not be distracted by a shiny screen of any kind. 

Listening is crucially important to good communication, and it is deceptively difficult. Maybe that is why I have found it so frustrating that it has taken me more than 8 years of teaching to find a good resource on the subject. But also, it makes sense that, as a deceptively difficult subject, it would be hard to find a resource that understands the nuances of the process and explains it well to others.