1. Focus and be attentive. Focus fully on the speaker. This includes not only the words coming out of their mouth, but also their body language, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues. If you’re finding it hard to concentrate or stay focused, try repeating their words over in your head, as this may reinforce their message and help you to remember what they are saying.
In order to be attentive, eye contact is key. Of course you can look away from the person every now and then, but be sure to be present, give them your full attention without any distractions, and remain ready to respond whenever necessary. As a side note, keep in mind that distractions can be obvious, like background noise or activities such as the television, your cell phone, or other people. Distractions can also be more subtle and even subconscious, like the speaker’s speech mannerisms or your own thoughts. Try your best to clear your mind and your surroundings of all of these distractions in order to give your speaker as much focus and attentiveness as possible.
2. Keep an open mind. Effective listening means listening without any judgement or biases, and without jumping to conclusions. The minute you find yourself passing judgement, mentally criticizing what is being said, or jumping to conclusions before hearing all of what the speaker needs to say, your effective listening is compromised. As you can likely imagine, judging a matter or jumping to conclusions about a matter before hearing it all the way through can cause a person to respond inappropriately or inaccurately.
3. Don’t interrupt. When somebody else is speaking, do not interrupt, talk over them or finish their sentences for them. Rather, wait for them to pause and then ask questions or give feedback as necessary. This is what we were taught when we were young, right? So then this is what we should practice as we grow older, as well. Interrupting a person sends a variety of messages including, “What I have to say is more important than what you have to say,” “I don’t care about what you have to say,” or “I am going to win this contest.” In addition, interruptions can create a wall or tension between the speaker and listener, making it hard to communicate effectively at all. Just be patient and listen, and then speak when it is your turn.
4. Show interest, provide feedback, and ask clarifying questions. Show the speaker that you are actively listening and that you are interested in what they are saying by having an open and inviting posture, maintaining eye contact, and occasionally nodding and smiling. You may even show interest and encourage the speaker to continue speaking by using small comments like “yes,” “right,” “uh huh,” or “mm hm.”
If it seems like concentration is being lost or there seems to be a sense of disconnect, try providing some additional feedback, like paraphrasing. Use phrases such as, “What I’m hearing is…” or “It sounds like you are saying…” This will demonstrate that you are paying attention, show that you are staying interested, and will allow you to express what the speaker’s words mean to you.
Of course, if you don’t understand something, you should ask the speaker to clarify or explain it to you in another way. In order to avoid coming off as rude, though, wait your turn and then say something like, “What do you mean when you say…,” “Is this what you mean when you say…,” or “I don’t understand what you mean when you said…”
5. Empathize. Empathy has been referred to as “the heart and soul of good listening.” To feel empathy, you must look at things from the other person’s perspective, put yourself in their shoes, and allow yourself to feel what they feel. For example, you should feel sorrow when the other person expresses sadness, happy when they express joyfulness, fearful when they describe their own fears, excited when they describe their own excitement, and so on. This is not easy, as it takes a lot of conscientiousness, concentration, and energy, but it is very kind and helpful, and certainly facilitates effective listening and communication.
Without the ability to listen effectively, messages are often misunderstood, communication is weak, and the speaker may easily become frustrated or angry. Conversely, by being an effective listener, not only will you better understand the other person, but you will also make that person feel heard, understood, and even respected, which will, in turn, help to strengthen the overall communication process.