One of the most important lessons I learnt was how to listen. It is amazing how powerful and rewarding it is when you learn to actually take notice and pay attention to what somebody is saying.

Really listening is for the benefit of everyone involved; the talker will feel better because they can tell you are actually paying attention and very often we just need someone to listen to us, and you yourself will benefit in an even bigger way.  You will get to know them better and you will gain valuable perspective, as hearing other people’s stories will give you a new understanding of where they are coming from, the reasons behind their actions and beliefs, and how they might respond to you in the future.

Normally when people talk we are trying to finish their sentences as well as prepare our answers or think of the next topic, because we already believe we know what they are going to say.  We’re usually wrong, or at least not completely right in our assumptions!

Listening is a positive act: you have to put yourself out to do it. David Hockney

If you do learn to listen to people they will almost certainly return the favour if it is needed, which is another important benefit.  You get what you give in most things in life, and listening is no exception.

Over 12 months ago I wrote ‘13 Simple Listening Tips‘ and today I’m going to simplify that down to 3. Is it really that simple? Yes and no – it is very simple, but it takes a lot of practice because old habits die hard.

If you follow these ‘3 steps to becoming a better listener‘ you will be in the rare minority that do actually listen.

  1. Be present – if you cannot ignore everything else going on then turn the TV off, put your phone on silent and remove any other distractions. Even if there are no other distractions, consider spending five seconds thinking about your breathing before you say to your friend ‘okay, I’m listening.’ Nobody will ever mind you spending a few seconds preparing yourself to listen properly, and that preparation is invaluable in getting yourself fully engaged with what the speaker is going to say.
  2. Remove yourself – you cannot listen properly when you are thinking about your own problems, your previous experiences on the topic at hand, or worse: preparing an answer before they’re even finished. They want to talk to you, not hear what you’re thinking. They might want your opinion at the end, but until they ask for your input keep quiet, be present and listen to everything they are saying without interjecting with your opinion.
  3. Visualise – this is the important part. If somebody is telling you about their experience make sure you visualise it. ‘You will never guess what happened to me in the coffee shop, I was sat there minding my own business…‘ At this point visualise a coffee shop, your friend sat at the table perhaps drinking her coffee. Of course you can make up the little bits, but visualising the story will mean you remember, it gives you the ability to sense the emotional context of the story and to fully understand what your friend is telling you. Visualising also stops your mind wandering, because it takes brainpower to build the images and the story in your mind; focusing in this way means you’re less likely to suddenly get pulled away by thoughts of ‘what’s for tea’ or ‘did I feed the cats’!

Becoming a Better Listener

Those are the three most important things.  If you can be present, remove yourself and visualise what they are telling you, you will not only remember but also understand what they are saying, and your interpersonal relationships will improve because of it.

As a bonus tip, following the theme of the three steps, there is also the ‘3 second rule’: when they finish talking, wait three seconds. Give them time to decide if they have more to say, don’t jump straight in.  If they think for a moment and then continue talking, they were not finished.  If they don’t, they’re really done and you can speak your piece without fear of having interrupted before they got everything off their chest.  (You can use this same ‘three second wait’ technique when you’ve asked someone a question and feel their answer was too short or maybe even a lie, but that’s a different subject entirely!)

I am far from a great listener, but I am still trying to improve – and just like the first article a year ago when I asked people to hold me to account, I still wish anybody reading this to make sure I do listen to them if we ever have a face to face conversation.

Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk. Doug Larson

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