In 2015, a study by Microsoft found that people generally lose concentration after just 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. Why? Because listening takes effort — and for many of us in an increasingly digital world, our brains’ automatic response to less-than-compelling information is to just zone out completely.
That’s a major problem when listening well is crucial to effective communication.
How, then, can you become a better listener? This piece is intended to answer that question by giving you some good, practical ideas that people have sent us on this topic. So far, we’ve had 15 good comments (I’m only publishing comments that are unique), which I’d summarize as follows:
- Think of yourself as a reporter, where everyone you have to listen to can teach us something (link)
- Stop thinking entirely on your response when someone is talking; listen first and form your response later (link) (EDITORS NOTE: this was the most common piece of advice people submitted)
- Similarly, listen with the intention of understanding the person you are with (link)
- Exercise, meditation and mindfulness can improve your ability to focus, in turn improving your listening ability (link, link)
- Slow down (link)
- Simply ask yourself why you’re listening to begin with (link)
- Make sure you understand what the person is saying (link)
- Make eye contact (link)
- Repeat back what the other person has said (link)
- Stop interrupting (link)
If you have any input on how to be a better listener that isn’t covered here, please make a submission and we’ll add your comment to this article.
The key to becoming a better listener is to value and respect others. If we consider others as worthy as ourselves, we are much more likely to pay attention to what they say.
To improve in this, we should pretend that we are a reporter, listening to what the other person has to say, without having the tools to record what they are uttering.
In other words, we should challenge ourselves to summarize what that person just said, concisely and accurately, if we were obligated to do so.
Often, we may subconsciously devalue what the other person has to say. We may not respect their opinions, or we may not respect and trust their level of knowledge.
If we incorporate the attitude that:
- that everyone and every situation can teach us something
- we consider ourselves a student of life,
We are more likely to pay attention when others are speaking.
We should all want to win people over. Nothing does that more effectively than making others feel important and wanted by respecting them enough to pay attention to what they say.
I have tried these techniques for years as a practicing dentist in NYC. I have carefully listened to what every patient has had to say before and after each appointment. I did this, and still do this, for a few minutes.
I have then been able to remember what they have told me by asking them relevant follow-up questions during our next encounter, which has greatly impressed them.
For example, when I ask patients about their job situation, family life, or their social lives, I pay full attention to what they say. I also keep the important parts of that conversation in mind.
Next time I see them, I ask them about the difficulty they had at their jobs they had mentioned previously without having to wait for them to say anything. I also or ask them about the vacation they had taken between their appointments as per the conversation we had.
This technique makes the patients feel important, and they see me more than just their dentist.
It makes them feel more comfortable with me, paving the way for more pleasant future encounters.
Moreover, it has led to them referring to me many more of their friends and family members as patients since they see me more than just a dentist treating their teeth.
--Dr. J Salim DMD, Sutton Place Dental Associates
I act as a salesman for my company and listening to potential clients is a big part of sales. One common mistake people make when someone is talking to them is they think of what they are going to say before the person is done talking. I have found that instead of trying to come up with a witty response right away, listen first then form your response.
When you are focused solely on what you are going to say next you miss important cues such as tones of voice, hand movements, and eye contact. People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they are deluding themselves, said neuroscientist Earl Miller. He also said, The brain is very good at deluding itself.
My tip is focusing solely on what a person says and follow their visual cues and then think of your response, this will turn you into an effective listener.
--Caleb Riutta, Dusk Digital
One of the best ways to increase your attention span is to improve your ability to focus. A few of the simple things I do to improve my focus are exercise and meditation. What I like about these two is it’s so low maintenance and effective. Exercise and meditation not only made me more focused, but it’s also made me more positive and open to other people. Radiating such warm energy has made it easier for me to connect with others.
--Simon Elkjaer, avXperten
My primary piece of advice would be to SLOW DOWN. Try and stop doing everything simultaneously. Take time to pay attention to what you are actually doing. Pay the person or task that is demanding our attention the respect they deserve. Listen to them and hear what they say. You will find that both you and the person/task will be much better off for it. This is what I did in all aspects of my life after the arrival of my children. The time with them is too valuable not to pay attention to every moment. And this slowing down - in the sense that I don't try and do everything at once - has also spilled over to the rest of my life.
--Leo Young, Optimized Family
The best advice I could offer anyone wanting to become a better listener is to ask yourself why you’re listening to begin with; what’s your motivation for receiving what someone is trying to tell you? It’s very easy to go through life hearing what people say, parsing out the relevant details or facts you need to hold onto, and then moving on with the conversation and your life without really listening to them. In doing so, you can miss nuanced details that help to give you a better picture of why your friend is frustrated at work, or why your spouse is sad that you forgot to take out the trash.
Ultimately, the human interactions we all share are what give life a greater value, and listening is the key to being able to get the most out of both your conversations and yourself. Next time, ask yourself what hidden gems of understanding are hiding below the surface of your conversation and then go find them!
--Jack Miller, How I Get Rid Of
A great way to become a better listener is to listen with the intention of understanding the person you are with, and not with the intention to respond. A major distractor when it comes to listening is the pressure of having a response when the other person is done talking. With this pressure, it is easy to not fully listen to that person, and to have the distraction of trying to formulate a response before they are done talking. Instead of listening to respond, try listening to understand. Then, take 2-4 seconds after that person has finished talking to formulate a response. You will be surprised how easily a meaningful response can be formed when you have all of the information about what the other person is expressing and feeling.
--GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC, PsychPoint
Make sure you understand what the person is saying. One of my favorite counseling techniques is to check with the person you are speaking with to make sure that you are understanding what they are saying. This helps me focus on what a person is trying to say to me, and then I'm able to ask the person if what I understood was correct and demonstrate that I understood what the person was saying.
--Kirsten Schuder, M. S., Schooling Your Kids Through a Pandemic
To become a better listener, one must first need to know the difference between hearing and listening.
Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound by the ear. If you are not hearing-impaired, hearing simply happens. Listening, however, is something you consciously choose to do. Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning from words and sentences.
Most people think that they’re listening when in reality they’re just hearing things, and not taking it by heart. To become a good listener, we need to not just open our ears, but we also need to open our hearts as well. We can do this by being attentive, a simple eye contact makes a difference for it will push us to be focused. Also, we need to understand what the speaker is trying to say and empathize- these traits will help us to become a better listener.
As a speech therapist, we value communication, and effective communication is when we’re able to convey information to another effectively and efficiently, and being a good listener is a big part of it. It is an important trait for us professionals, but I believe that everybody needs to have that quality as well. We can all learn how to be a good listener as we grow old, especially if we strive to be the best version of ourselves. So I say, do those little things and just try, coz who knows, we might be able to save a life or two.
--Dr. Sheri Stein-Blum, CCC-SLP, BetterSpeech.com
An often over looked aspect to good communication is that of eye contact. In the day of the Smartphone, this has become somewhat of a lost art, but is still crucial when trying to show someone that you are paying attention and care about what they are saying. Looking directly at another person during conversation can show multiple different things depending on your facial expression, but the first thing it does is help you connect with that person. If you are talking to someone about something that is important to them, your facial expression should reflect that, similar to the way you would look at an upset child or pet. Eye contact can also help you to better read people by noting whether they are excited, angry, or concerned etc. By connecting with people and understanding their emotions, you can then adapt your behavior to try and meet their needs. A great example of this is if you are talking to someone who is upset and you keep making eye contact with them, the chances of you being able to help them calm down go way up. Another way that focusing on eye contact can help you in your social interactions is by being able to notice more details about the situation in which you are in. For example, if you are talking to someone in a crowded room and you keep looking around the room, your focus is going to shift from what the other person is saying to what your eyes catch. Bottom line: the texting society thinks direct & deep human interaction is weird, when in reality it's exactly what we need!
--Sonia Akavan, Books & Wisdom
In my experience I find the most important step to becoming a better listener is to quiet down my own agenda. Subconsciously, I often find myself thinking of counter-arguments, rather than actually listening to the other person. So for me, suppressing that urge is the most important part of being a good listener. To achieve that, I do these three things:
1. Look the person in the eyes. That way I'm completely focused on them, and it makes it very hard for my mind to wander off from the conversation. It also assures the other person that they have my undivided attention.
2. Try to construct a mental model of what they're saying. I try to draw an imaginary flowchart of what the other person is saying. How do all their arguments fit together? Do they feed off of each other, or are they random and unrelated? This is vital for really understanding the other person, and where they're coming from. We all live in our own world, and until you understand what the other person's world looks like, you have no chance of understanding them. And if you're arguing with them, knowing that is even more important. Because if you want to convince them of something, you need to speak in the language of their own world, since that is the language they know best.
3. Repeat back what the other person said. Repeating what the other person said accomplishes two things. One, everyone likes hearing their own words sung back to them. This establishes your rapport with the other person, and makes them more receptive to your ideas. But more importantly, it helps you internalize their reasoning, and get to the core things I need to take away (or argue against).
--Velin Dragoev, Keen Fighter
Meditation and mindfulness! I really cannot overstate how amazing these practices are for not just becoming a better listener, but also having more control over your attention span in general. I suffer from ADD; actively listening to people has been something I have immensely struggled with since childhood. Over time, I have gained the ability to not just listen to someone, but also appropriately digest/retain what they are saying. Even brief meditation has been shown to notably increase attention for novices through multiple studies. Allowing yourself to focus on your breathing for just 5 minutes a day and taking a moment to acknowledge the present moment here and there is all you need to start practicing.
--Kaelum Ross, What in Tech
Listen without interrupting. Perhaps you're an over-eager communicator, just itching to jump into the conversation. Or just impatient. But there's a huge risk to listening by waiting your turn. First, you're probably missing stuff. You're so eager to speak you're not hearing some of what's being said. You might learn something, or change your mind, or maybe even agree if you just took the time to listen to the whole message the speaker is communicating before barging in or interrupting them. Second, you're coming across as rude and uncaring. People really want to see that you care about what they think. You're damaging trust and harming the relationship.
--Halelly Azulay, TalentGrow
During my life coach training, I learned about active listening and it has been a game changer for me. Drawing awareness to our norms and habits makes it possible to create change. In this case, the change has enabled me to connect more deeply with people, build trust, learn and retain information more easily, and resolve issues more quickly.
Active listening is the practice of focusing on the speaker with the intent to understand and retain their message. Doing so will enable you to respond more thoughtfully. There are both verbal (e.g., paraphrasing and making short affirmative comments such as yes or I hear you) and non-verbal (e.g. nodding and making eye contact) components of active listening.
In the past, I may have been thinking of how to respond or felt compelled to bond by jumping in with a related story to share when speaking with others. This may have led the speaker to think I didn't care about what they had to say or only wanted to talk about myself. Active listening clears up these types of misunderstandings, so give it a try.
--Linda Mueller, The Expat Partner Coach
One of the simplest ways to become a better listener is to stop mentally preparing for the next portion of the conversation. Whether you're deciding how to formulate a rebuttal, or are just waiting for a break to share a similar experience, it makes it difficult to listen when your mind is focused on something else.Plus, the other person involved in the conversation can tell. When we are half-listening and half-thinking, we tend to break into a story with nods and one-word comments - simply to prove that we're paying attention. It's all a little transparent.
--Sally Rong, RELLERY
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