good listening 101

Listening skills are a cornerstone of elementary school curriculum across the globe, and we’re expected to have developed these skills before we hit middle school. Yet, many of us couldn’t verbalize what those skills are, specifically. How many of us really understand the process of listening? How many of us know how to hear, but not truly to listen?

It may be the ADHD in me, but understanding the why of an action is practically necessary for me to be able to perform that action. I need to understand why this particular function is vital for the overall process. Maybe it’s the sense of urgency provided by the perspective that every step is vital. Maybe I’m just a rebel that can’t blindly take someone’s word for anything. Regardless, breaking down a skill into parts and developing my understanding of those individual parts is how I learn. So, obviously, I really sucked at listening until I took time to learn about listening. If you’re anything like me, the following breakdown of how to be a good listener may be just what you need to improve your listening skills and, ultimately, your communication skills.

Why should I give a shit?

You should give a shit because improving your listening skills will improve your quality of life. Learning how to be a good listener will:

  • help to reduce conflict in your day-to-day life.
  • help you connect with others on a deeper level.
  • help you verbalize your needs in a variety of situations.

Before we deep-dive into the three good-listening benefits listed above, we need to break listening down into its parts.

Listening is a process

The four stages of listening

1. Receiving

Unlike hearing, which is an automatic and effortless response to sound, listening requires intentional focus. The first stage of listening, receiving, may sound like passively hearing sounds, but it actually describes the point where we intentionally focus our hearing on the words of the speaker. This might mean blocking out unrelated sounds from the environment, putting our phone away, or watching the movement of the speaker’s lips. 

2. Understanding

The second stage of listening, understanding, is pretty self-explanatory. This is the point where we assign meaning to the string of words received in stage 1. We assign meaning based on our personal bank of knowledge as well as our experiences. Understanding requires knowledge of the individual words, the contextual relationship of the words in a sentence, and non-verbal queues. 

3. Evaluating

Evaluating, the third stage of listening, is the point where we assign value to the message as we have understood it in stage 2. This means determining if the speaker is credible, if we agree or disagree with the message, or if the message is biased.  

4. Responding

The last stage, responding, refers to the point at which we react to the speaker’s message. This can be a verbal response, or a non-verbal gesture such as shrugging your shoulders or nodding your head. 

Some also include remembering as an additional stage between understanding and evaluating. 

How to achieve the three good-listening benefits

There is potential for misunderstanding at all four listening-process stages, which makes each stage vital to effective communication. 

If we fail to pay attention, are unable to hear, or begin forming our response during the receiving stage, we may miss important details that affect our understanding of the message. If we don’t understand the meaning of a word or perceive a different contextual meaning based on our experiences, we may misunderstand the message. If we are unsure of a person’s credibility or allow our biases to affect our judgment, we may unfairly assume the message holds no value. If we are not conscious of our tone and non-verbal queues, our response may be perceived inaccurately. 

We can use good listening to avoid the above-mentioned issues, which will ultimately result in reduced daily conflict, deeper connections, and improved communication.

Good listening

  1. Pay attention – put down your phone, turn toward the speaker, and allow them to finish speaking before you consider how to respond. 
  2. Ask clarifying questions – if you were unable to hear, ask them to repeat themselves. If you don’t understand the meaning of a term, ask them to explain it to you. If you need more context, ask them to elaborate. 
  3. Use non-verbal queues – show them you are paying attention by using non-verbal queues where appropriate. Nod to indicate you understand and you’re following the thread, use facial expressions to indicate understanding the emotional context, etc.
  4. Reflect – take time to reflect on your own biases (we all have them) to ensure you aren’t making unfair assumptions. Also, consider possible cultural differences that might impact meaning.

Reduce conflict in your daily life

Allowing someone to finish speaking before you respond and using non-verbal queues to show you are paying attention will:

  • put them at ease – we all have a need to feel heard.
  • ensure you understand the message – you may miss important details and make an incorrect assumption if you interrupt them.

Reflecting on your personal biases and cultural differences will: 

  • reduce the likelihood of making unfair assumptions – this will impact our tone and language so that our response is better received.

Connect with others on a deeper level

Giving someone your full attention and asking clarifying questions will:

  • make them feel respected and understood – respect is foundational to strong relationships.
  • help you learn how to best support them – when you truly understand the message, you will be better prepared to offer the support they need. 

Verbalize your needs in a variety of situations

Consistently paying attention when someone speaks will:

  • help you learn their communication style – this will show you how to verbalize your own needs in a way they will understand. 
  • show them how you want to be treated – offering respect and commitment to understanding will encourage reciprocity. 

Reflecting on your personal biases and cultural differences will 

  • help you choose your words and non-verbal queues more intentionally to give you the best chance at being understood.

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