7 Spot-On Ways to Be a Better Listener

Elizabeth Marglin

by | Updated: June 17th, 2020 | Read time: 4 minutes

During troubling times, instead of shutting down, what’s called for is to listen better. Listening while having a one-one-one, face-to-face conversation may feel like it’s sliding into obsolescence as other methods of electronic communication, such as texting and social media messaging, rise to the fore.

A 2015 Microsoft study on Canadian media consumption found that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. Apparently, we now have a shorter attention span than goldfish (they have a nine second attention span). But when we don’t know how to listen well, we lose out on essential part of what makes us human—our ability to connect, attune, and communicate. Of all our communication skills, listening might be the most important—and underestimated.

According to Elaine Smookler, a psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher, philosopher Martin Heidegger identified listening as a key to maintaining meaningful relationships with family, friends and even colleagues.

Woman Who Learned How to be a Better Listener Smiling While Having Conversation with Friend at Cafe on Rainy Day | Vitacost.com/blog

Here are seven tips to hone your ability to listen mindfully.

How to be a better listener

1. Be present with yourself

How can we bring our A-game to listening? First of all, by having skin in the game. Good listening begins with listening to yourself, that is, developing a keen awareness of what you bring to the table: Your own emotions, feelings and thoughts. Jon Kabbat-Zinn described mindfulness as “affectionate attention.” Can you listen to your own thoughts with affection, acknowledging them without judging them? That’s the prerequisite to letting go of the pre-judgments we bring to situations—which is the assumption that we know the answers. Mindfulness helps us listen more deeply, and with more inner clarity, so we can really hear what the other person is saying.

2. Get invested

Be genuinely invested in your conversation partner by allowing yourself to be receptive to their words, tone, body language and facial expressions. Even if you don’t agree, take in what they are saying with as much awareness as you can muster. And by the way, the opposite of listening is thinking ahead to what you’re going to say next while your partner is still talking.

3. Paraphrase what you heard

One of the best ways to become a better listener is to make sure you are accurately hearing what the other person is saying. Active listening is a process that includes responses to the speaker that confirm and acknowledge that you have heard what they are saying. The basic concept is to paraphrase back to the speaker what you hear. If the speaker agrees that what you heard is what he or she intended to say, you can move forward. If not, the speaker needs to reword their statement until the listener can repeat it back with accuracy. This kind of ongoing clarification can help diffuse tensions that arise as opinions start to differ and reactions get triggered.

4. Display empathy

There’s a mindfulness practice called “Just like me.” It’s powerful to practice in conversation when you feel you are diverging from your partner. You can bring yourself back by saying just like me, this person suffers. Just like me, this person loses it sometimes. Just like me, this person wants intimacy. This practice helps you find common ground and helps you view the world from their perspective. Accessing empathy when listening provides an excellent opportunity to be other-focused, rather than self-focused.

5. Share your story

Instead of using the floor to defend your point of view, try engaging on the level of values, fears and interests. A vulnerable but powerful way to do this is to share personal stories about your experience with the issue and the change you wish to see.

6. Leave room for disagreement

Recognize that there may be times when the conversation gets heated and you don’t see eye to eye. Acknowledge the conflict in the moment by calling it out but do so in a way that ensures a sense of safety, trust, and respect. Try saying, “I can see that there is tension around this issue. Let’s see how we can move through it by returning to listening to each other’s perspectives.”

7. Commit to more conversations

Conversation may be a fading art, but it’s one worth reviving. When you hit the sweet spot of emotional connection, regardless of subject matter, we begin to recognize that our true state, as Pema Chodron says, is “interconnected.” Our deep listening serves to uncover our interconnectedness rather than defend our separateness. A good conversation is the portal to an emotional connection—and the gift of connection, of a sense of our shared humanity, is its own reward.