How to Be a Better Listener


September 3, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

You may think you’re a pretty good listener, but do the people around you disagree? Has anyone ever looked at you with a disappointed expression and said, “Are you listening?” My guess is the answer is yes.

Have you ever then replied to the person in an annoyed voice, “What do you mean, am I listening?” and then repeated what he or she said verbatim—to prove they were wrong? My guess is again, yes.

Did your annoyed response dramatically improve your relationship with that other human being?

Say You’re Sorry

My guess this time is no.

Even if you were listening, how much of an “I care about you” message were you sending to that other human being by taking a defensive posture? Zero. What that other person was really asking was, “Why don’t you care?” Was proving them wrong about listening really worth it? I don’t think so.

So, the next time someone looks at you and says, “You’re not listening,” apologize. Just reply, “I am sorry. I will try to better in the future.”

Look Like You Care

How do to better? Start looking like you care. As others speak to us, how do they know that we aren’t listening? They don’t. They only assume that we aren’t listening because we don’t look like we are. If we remember to look like we care, we will not only be reminding ourselves to listen better, we will also be reminding ourselves to communicate a sense of respect for the person who is speaking to us.

Here are several ideas to help you not only listen better, but to look like you are listening, and to demonstrate caring to the person who is speaking to you:

1. After having a dialogue with friends, colleagues, or family members, ask them to give you a 1-10 assessment of how much you looked like you cared about their remarks.

2. Find a partner and practice communication while recording it on video. Turn off the sound and just watch your nonverbal behavior. How much caring and respect are your communicating?

3. Try to eliminate all distractions when others are speaking to you. When you are doing other work, answering e-mails, or doing something on your computer while someone is speaking to you — you may not look like you care.

4. Ask questions that let the other person know you have heard what they have to say and would like to learn more.

While this advice can be very important at work, it may be just as important at home. Now that you’ve had a test-run, you’re ready to employ a few following listening tactics in more of your interpersonal encounters. Try these:

• Listen.

• Don’t interrupt.

• Don’t finish the other person’s sentences.

• Don’t say, “I knew that.”

• Don’t even agree with the other person, just listen!

• Don’t use the words “no,” “but,” and “however.”

• Eliminate any striving to impress the other person with how smart and funny you are. Your goal is to let the other person feel that.

If you can do these things while you’re in a conversation, you will inevitably find that the other person will think you are a great person! All because you listened. You’d feel the same if someone made you feel like the most important person around—all by just listening! If you want people to feel good in your presence, that’s all you have to do. Just listen.