by Niall Doherty

It recently became clear to me that I could be a much better listener, so it’s something I’ve been working on. Good and frequent listening deepens my personal relationships, helping me better understand and appreciate people and situations. It also stops me from getting too caught up in my own self-centeredness.

Here are a few things I believe everyone can do to improve their listening skills. If you have any additional advice, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

1. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

I believe it’s almost impossible to concentrate fully on what another person is saying for a significant amount of time. Even the best minds wander, no matter how much we try to control our focus. So when listening, you can expect that your mind will get distracted every now and then. That’s okay. The trick is to be aware of those lapses, and quickly admit to the other person that your mind wandered, then ask him/her to repeat what was said.

Don’t worry, you won’t have a cup thrown at your head come across as an easily-distracted, half-hearted listener by doing this. On the contrary, you’ll affirm to the other person that you care about what they have to say and that you don’t want to miss anything.

2. Paraphrase it back

Like #1, this ensures that you’re actively listening and not just nodding along. When you try to put what you hear into your own words and say it back, you quickly find out if you’re understanding everything correctly. Paraphrase and summarize. If you’ve gotten something wrong, you’ll be corrected.

3. Learn another language

I am not (yet) fluent in anything but English, but I’ve noticed that people who speak multiple languages are generally much better listeners than people who are monolingual. And the reason is obvious: when you learn another language, you have to do lots of active listening. You’re forced into high levels of concentration as you try to understand what is being said in the new language, and you often have to ask people to repeat themselves.

I believe you also become better at interpreting body language and facial gestures when you’re learning another language, which can only serve to help you improve your listening skills.

(By the way, I’m learning that becoming fluent in another language doesn’t have to be a chore. Check out this website for good tips from a fellow Irishman.)

4. Visualize

Try to visualize what the other person is describing. If they’re telling you about the house they grew up in, try to picture it in your mind and ask questions to fill in the gaps in the image. Your visualizations need not be limited to physical things either. Try to imagine feelings, emotions, tastes, sounds, etc. You obviously don’t need to know every little detail, but try to ask some key questions that will make the image clearer for you.

5. Be curious

Curiosity is a choice. People are often more preoccupied with being interesting than being interested. And yet the most interesting people I know are those most interested in the universe and everything in it.

Be curious about what other people have to say. What drives them? What troubles them? What are their hopes and dreams? What are their struggles and fears? What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? What can they teach you? What can you teach them?

Everyone has a great story. You just need to listen well and ask the right questions to hear it.

6. Forget about solutions

A common trap I fall into when listening is trying to come up with and offer solutions. I’ve found that this is usually unwise. Most people don’t want solutions; they want you just to listen and to empathize. If you’re talking with someone who’s going through a tough time, one of the best things you can do is to be there and try share in their pain, take some of it off their shoulders.

Folks learn better by working through to a solution themselves anyway. Offering them an easy way out rarely helps them in the long run. Think back to school when you copied your classmate’s homework. Sure, that solved the immediate problem and you didn’t get in trouble, but you really didn’t learn anything either. Come exam time, you were left wishing you’d done your own homework.

7. Let them be who they are

Another problem I’m trying to overcome is the propensity to form judgments of people or situations as I’m listening. I’ve found that this is usually a bad thing. When I’m busy forming judgments or coming to conclusions in my head, I’m not really listening.

There is a fine line to walk here though, since I’m not about to sit there and listen to someone be racist or wallow in their own misery. In those situations, it’s good to try steer the conversation to something more positive.

8. Be aware of distractions

I was going to tell you to eliminate distractions here, but I’ve found that learning to deal with distractions can actually sharpen your listening skills. For example, last week in Naples I was chatting with a friend in a busy town square. There were all kinds of noises and movements and female forms trying to distract me, but that forced me to step up my listening game and focus intently on what my friend had to say. Yes, I probably could have listened to her better in a quieter environment, but I wouldn’t have had to stretch myself as much. And you have to stretch to grow.

So just be aware of distractions. You might be able to use them to your advantage.

9. Practice, practice, practice

Lastly, a somewhat obvious tip: If you want to get better at anything, you need to practice. Experience is the best teacher, so get into some conversations, making ever-greater efforts to really listen and understand whoever you’re conversing with.

After each try, consider what you did well and what you need to work on. Then go try again.