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What Makes a Good Listener?

We believe we’re hearing our colleagues, spouses and children crystal clear, when we’re not really listening at all.

Most of us believe our communication skills are above average. Not only is that a statistical impossibility, research shows that only about 10% of us listen effectively.

When we hear someone speak, the sound must be processed by our auditory cortex before we can attach meaning to it. This leaves room for all sorts of interpretations based on our past experiences and biases.

A good listener makes sure to understand the speaker’s intended meaning, allowing them to feel heard. This common understanding is vital to our relationships. When someone understands us, we feel connected to them and are more likely to trust them. Where connection is lacking, conflict is more common and relationships can break down.

The good news is that effective or “active” listening is a skill you can learn. Here are three ways to flex your listening muscle.

Listen to understand

The brain can process up to 1,000 words per minute, but the average person speaks at around 175 words per minute. So, what do we do with the other 825 words?

In short, we get bored. We formulate our response, try to remember whether we put the bins out, and wait patiently for our turn to talk. Faye Doell labels this “listening to respond” – our focus is on how we can add value to the conversation, rather than what the speaker is sharing.

The danger is that we miss vital context. We assume the lens through which we see the world is universal. That advice, anecdote or explanation might seem amazing in your head, but it comes as a kick in the teeth to your conversation partner. They feel unseen, misunderstood, and are less likely to trust you.

When we listen to understand, we stay curious. We’re ready to work with our conversation partner to figure things out, and we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty in the process. We accept that we don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s quite freeing.

If you’re new to active listening, a great exercise is to just let someone talk. It’s not until you do it that you notice how alien it feels not to jump in. When they’ve finished speaking, ask them to clarify particular words they’ve used, what makes the topic so important to them, or how they want to move things forward. If nothing else, you’ll learn a thing or two.

Reflect back

Science tells us that when we speak, the part of the brain that processes sound becomes less active. Hearing someone else repeat our words back to us can help us process them, and is a tool widely used in coaching and therapy.

In a 2012 study, 20 participants were interviewed about a recent or ongoing social conflict. Each time, the interviewer asked the same 10 questions. After each answer, the interviewer either paraphrased the response, or took notes. The participants that heard their answers paraphrased reported feeling less negative and lowered their voice when answering subsequent questions.

From the listener’s perspective, paraphrasing can help us make sure we’ve understood the speaker’s perception, overcoming cognitive biases. A simple “I’m hearing that…” can go a long way – as we know, shared understanding is the foundation of a trusting relationship.

Embrace silence

Humans are allergic to silence. A moment of pause, and we’re ready to jump in with a witty comment or nuanced viewpoint. Interestingly, some cultures are more disposed to silence than others. Studies of business meetings found that Japanese speakers were comfortable with silences up to 8.2 seconds, whereas a pause of just 4 seconds left English speakers feeling unsettled.

While we don’t want to make our conversation partners uncomfortable, silence can create valuable space for self-reflection. In the typical tennis match of conversation, our auditory cortex becomes less active, working on autopilot and responding to a neurochemical cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. By introducing silence, we can break this cycle, reducing blood pressure and allowing our brains to process what’s being said.

Next time a conversation gets heated, whether with frustration or excitement, take a moment to pause and connect with what’s happening in your body. Feel where your feet meet the ground. Listen for the sound of your breath. Who knows, your moment of silence might encourage the other person to reflect too.

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