The art of listening

Improving your listening skills takes practice
Author Fran Lebowitz famously said, “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” This take might sound extreme, but it gets at an important point. Many of us don’t listen as well as we think we do. Being a good listener requires both intent and practice—and some patience with oneself. It takes time. If you’re easily distracted or sometimes interrupt others, you might be able to develop your listening skills. These habits, like anything else, can be improved with practice.There may be a simple reason we’re not better listeners. According to psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter, author of High Octane Women, and of the Psychology Today blog of the same name, “… we were all taught (hopefully) to listen to our parents and to listen in school. However, few of us were taught good listening—the active, disciplined kind of listening that helps us examine and challenge the information we hear in order to improve its quality and quantity, and thereby improve our decision-making.”

Some people are better listeners than others. But anyone can learn the necessary skills.

Not sure whether you’re a good listener? Kate Murphy, author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters, suggests asking yourself a simple question: When was the last time you listened to someone? Really listened. You weren’t thinking about what you wanted to say next, glancing at your phone, or interjecting your opinion?

In Murphy’s article for The New York Times, she says people have an easier time describing a poor listener than a good one. The culprits? Butting in, being distracted, or responding in self-absorbed or baffling ways. Also, our social media habits make it easy to express views without taking in those of others. Add a preference for texting over voice calls and a bigger picture emerges. These habits may contribute to an epidemic of loneliness in the United States.

But there may be a cure. Murphy gathered academic research and interviewed listeners. People like a CIA agent, radio producer, priest, and bartender who listen for a living. In short, “active listening” is about more than simply not talking. Her suggestions include:

  • Pay attention to how people say things. What do they do while they are saying it? What is the context in which they say it?
  • How you respond matters. It lets them know you’ve understood them and helps crystallize your own thoughts.
  • Ask questions without right or wrong answers. Don’t imply that you’re trying to fix anything or offer advice.
  • Avoid questions like “What school did you go to?” or “Are you married?” which can spotlight social status. This can undermine a genuine attempt to get to know someone.
  • Ask about people’s interests. Use expansive questions such as, “If you could have a conversation with anyone in the world, who would it be?”

And remember, when a person answers a question, engage in active listening rather than tuning out or trying to anticipate the next level of the conversation. Be willing to leave a bit of silence after someone speaks. It shows you’re listening and gives you a chance to think of what you’ll say next.

Good listening isn’t purely altruistic. The reward is deeper, more detailed conversations. That depth leads to richer human connection—because, in part, people tend to share more with skilled listeners. Most people want to feel heard and understood—even just for a moment. You give more, you get more. One good thing leads to another.

“When listening to another person, don’t just listen with your mind, listen with your whole body. Feel the energy field of your inner body as you listen. That takes attention away from thinking and creates a still space that enables you to truly listen without the mind interfering. You are giving the other person space-space to be. It is the most precious gift you can give.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

Tips for improving your active listening skills

Being a good listener requires taking in what the person is saying, as well as how they are saying it. Here are some tips to improve your active listening.

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