Listen Up!: 15 Techniques To Improve Our Listening

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Welcome back to our three-part series on becoming better listeners. In the previous installment, we established that listening is a desirable ability to have as men. But how can we practically begin to exercise this ability and develop it in ourselves? There are active steps we can take to overcome obstacles and establish new listening habits. That is what we’ll tackle today.

Sharpening our listening skills is relatively easy to begin practicing since most of it is based on knowing what constitutes good listening and what doesn’t. Remember: listening is not a passive process, so all of the techniques below are active, including the ones that are not visible to the speaker.

1. Listen with an open mind

Be ready to hear and consider all sides of an issue. This does not mean that we have to agree with what is being said, but rather that we must avoid defensiveness. Another way to think of it is to go into an interaction ready to consider new viewpoints and ideas. If it helps, equate this with the scientific process we were taught ad nauseam during grade school. Every opinion and perspective we encounter while listening can be viewed as the hypothesis that we, as diligent pseudo-scientist listeners, can examine and experiment upon. And just as third grade science debunked my lack of faith that wet paper towels could actually cause a lima bean to sprout, our willingness to listen to a different perspective will sometimes yield surprising new insights for us.

2. Listen to the entire message without judging or refuting

Suppress the urge to let biases and prejudices prevent you from listening fully. We can only do one thing effectively at a time: listen, judge, or respond. Go in that order. You have to begin with listening to the entire message, then you can weigh your thoughts against what has been said, and finally respond. Allow each role to run its course in turn. When you are the listener, you cannot simultaneously be the judge. Our minds do not work in categories quite so neatly, but when we make this effort to suppress or postpone our desire to make premature judgments we become better listeners.

A great way to prepare for this in advance is to be aware of what your biases are and then try to reason out why you feel this way. What “buzz words” or topics generate a strong emotional reaction – either positive or negative – in you? If you judge and then speak too soon, you’ve opened the possibility of having missed a critical part of the message and thus embarrassing yourself by jumping to conclusions.

3. Determine the concepts and central ideas of the message

The best gauge to know whether you are listening or just hearing is whether or not you are actively looking for the central idea(s) of what is being said. This could easily morph into a whole other issue about the structure of a message, but that is not our focus here. Here, we are the listener, and if the message is well-constructed then our role will be easier, but we will not always have that luxury. A great technique, regardless of the speaker’s ability to construct a message, is to listen in such a way that you can summarize what you gleaned to be the central idea(s). What are the common threads – the ideas that seem to weave their way into everything being said? If the situation allows, you can then share your summary with the speaker and confirm (or revise) your understanding. Doing this builds your confidence as a listener, plus it proves to the speaker that you were listening.

4. Learn to adapt to the speaker’s appearance, personality, and delivery

Don’t allow a stereotype – either negative or positive – to influence your listening. Despite conventional wisdom against judging a book by its cover, we do so consciously and unconsciously every day. Appearance can be a major factor, and not everyone is blessed with dashing good looks or the sartorial wisdom we find here at The Art of Manliness. We’re just going to have to deal with it. After all, Abraham Lincoln was no George Clooney. The sixteenth president of the United States was a homely-looking fella, but his words changed the course of history.

Beyond appearance, we should also spend some time coming to peace with the fact that there are different personalities, styles, and levels of ability. As an English teacher, I have to weigh these elements with every paper I grade, so I understand how tedious it is to cope with things that run against your grain even if they aren’t necessarily “wrong.” Although it is far from a quick fix, it can be helpful to study rhetoric so that you can recognize what the speaker does well, thereby giving you something positive to focus on and making it easier to listen. Likewise, studying rhetoric allows you to understand where exactly a speaker falls short, thus eliminating phantom annoyances and allowing you to recognize and accept the stylistic and delivery shortcomings for what they are as you listen.

5. Curb and overcome distractions

It takes very little to jerk our attention away from the work of listening. We start out in life as good listeners. Think about how much a baby learns within the first few years of his or her life. Yet babies don’t attend classes, read textbooks, or go to seminars. They simply listen, and they do it so well that eventually they start behaving like little adults. Over time, however, a series of bad habits begins to sprout up. Dr. Paine shared the following statistics with us: when a teacher suddenly stopped in the middle of a lesson and asked students to explain the content of the lesson thus far, 90% of first grade students could do so successfully. That number drops to 80% in second graders, then plummets to 44% in middle school students, and a gut-wrenching 28% in high school. In other words, despite how well we start, our bad habits develop rather quickly.

If we are to become better listeners, we must learn to recognize the obstacles we face. Listening can be hard work and we are fickle – you might be surprised at how little it takes to derail us, especially when most of us were already at 28% recall as teenagers. Examples of obstacles we must overcome include:

  • External noises (beeping, humming, etc.)
  • Psychological activity (worry, self-consciousness, preoccupation, etc.)
  • Physical conditions (temperature, odors, lighting, visual distractions, etc.)
  • Physiological conditions (pain, hunger, fatigue, etc.)
  • Semantic distractions (dialects, accents, unfamiliar vocabulary, etc.)
  • Technological distractions (the urge to check your phone, surf the net, etc.)

Being aware of what is distracting us at any given moment is half the battle. However, when we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot overcome the obstacle, there is nothing wrong with letting the speaker know and suggesting a solution, such as a change of setting or having the discussion at another time. Doing so communicates that we want to give our full attention. Being aware of those times when we simply cannot muster the ability to do it is important too. Listening requires effort, and we cannot always exert effort in listening any more than we can always lift weights or solve crossword puzzles. It is okay to recognize limitations and the need for rest. It is also okay to admit when we have zoned-out or potentially misunderstood/misheard something. Everyone suffers from poor listening, and the speaker would be hard-pressed to condemn you for recognizing your lapse and making amends for it.

6. Attempt to find a connection to or personal interest in the speaker’s topic

Develop an attitude that there is always something potentially interesting or valuable to be gleaned, even if that means confirmation that you don’t find something interesting or valuable. After all, if you’re exerting the effort, you might as well take something away from it. If you’ve already predetermined that you are uninterested, it would be a Herculean effort for even the best speaker to make the topic interesting. But if we only did the things that were immediately interesting to us, think how much we would miss out on. Also consider how often seemingly useless information has served you well. Finding connections and personal interest requires self-discipline, but maintaining a positive attitude is essential to being a good listener, especially in those situations where we would rather not listen.

7. Remember that listening does not equal agreement

I’ll admit that, even after Dr. Paine’s lessons, one of my greatest obstacles to listening is the irrational fear that the speaker (or others) will perceive my listening as agreement. We should remember, however, that listening does not equal agreement. Listening does not force us to silence our own opinions, it just asks us to show respect to others. All that listening actually communicates is a willingness to communicate – and nothing more. I think Dr. Paine said it best in these two statements: “Listening demands neither surrender nor agreement; instead, listening demands an open mind” and “Listening actually provides a powerful way to bring about change because listening is thinking, because listening is action.”

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