I’m not what anyone would call a good listener. I interrupt, ask unnecessary Qs, and, on the wine-infused occasion, derail the conversation entirely. Can I help it that my version of connecting with another person is almost exclusively based on sharing stories, regardless of whether they actually got to finish theirs? Yes, yes I can. But hey, at least I’m not alone.
“In the age of digital distraction, really listening is a rare thing,” says psychologist Seth Gillihan, PhD. “Yet it’s one of the most healing experiences—feeling that someone hears you and, through hearing you, sees you.” It’s also a skill that strengthens relationships, professionalism, self-awareness…you know, all the things.
If you’re similarly challenged in this department, good news: Reworking your attentiveness is simpler than you’d think. Just listen to me…
1. Ditch the distractions.
You’re doing your thing when your S.O. or colleague says they’ve got something on their mind. Before they begin, you have work to do. If just hearing those words makes you grunt (as it might when you’re in the middle of a pressing task), ask for a reasonable amount of time to finish up: “I just need X minutes so I can give you my full attention.” Then, when you’re ready, do just that: Stash your phone, turn off the TV, or close your laptop, says Gillihan. “This signals that you’re present,” he explains. Turn to face them with an open posture—unfolded arms, uncrossed legs—to signal you’re receptive to what they’re about to say.
Next, whether you’re across from your partner, a new intern, or the CEO, show your ego the exit. You want to be attentive and open-minded, no matter the speaker, says Leslie Shore, author of Listen to Succeed—which requires axing your internal agenda and judgment. Pretend you’re a younger, underexperienced version of yourself, and embody that headspace before hearing the other person out. You’ll be hard-pressed to dismiss them once you’ve tapped into a less know-it-all you.
2. Notice their needs.
If your partner or colleague is discussing something that’s bothering them, chances are this isn’t the first time they’ve thought about it. Trust that what they have to say is important, necessary, and will actually accomplish something. Okay…but what?
Gillihan suggests asking yourself what they might need—a compromise? support?—especially if you’re starting to feel tense, uptight, or defensive. “This can have a real humanizing effect, because we all have needs,” he explains, “and it can totally change the place you’re listening from and put the other person at the front of your mind.”
Another tip for your 9-to-whenever: Ask your coworker to define their intentions from the jump, suggests Shore. This can set you up for better listening because “it lets you know the mindset they’re starting with.” Try: “How do you want me to listen?” Do they want advice or new ideas, or do they just need to vent? This not only honors the speaker but also shows you legitimately care, says Shore.
3. Mute your inner monologue.
As fascinating as your own thoughts might be, getting wrapped up in your reaction to what the other person is saying can block you from truly hearing them. You might miss the subtle nuances and even misinterpret their message if you’re too busy planning your next move.
To listen mindfully, purposely take in their entire delivery, Gillihan says. Notice their hand gestures, really see their eyes, examine their expressions. If that makes you zone out on their actual speech, check in with yourself to see what’s going on in your own body. If your shoulders are tensing or your stomach feels tight, that’s a sign that what they’re saying packs crucial intel. Let that acknowledgment bring you back to the present.
At work, Shore recommends jotting down a few key words (not full sentences, which will take you out of the moment) whenever your colleague says something that sparks a reaction. Then let it go (for now) and refocus on their next remark. Peep your notes only when they’ve finished.
4. Interject to connect.
When your partner “needs to talk” (the horror!) or your boss “has something they’d like to discuss” (the professional horror!), you might get defensive before they finish their first sentence because you don’t like where you think they’re headed. But remember: You don’t know the content yet!
“It’s hard enough to listen if you’re neutral, much less if you’re slightly antagonistic,” notes Gillihan. He suggests resolving—in advance—not to interrupt. Once they’ve let it all out, check in to make sure you understood them, and even invite them to say more if they’d like.
The only time you get to interrupt? If they’re throwing a lot at you and you’re either losing interest or not sure you’re understanding their major points. Try something like, “I want to make sure I get this part. It sounds like you’re saying…” That’s interrupting with intention, rather than stopping them from expressing their feelings or beliefs so you can air your own.
5. Make your listening last.
Congrats, you’ve just aced your mini master class in mindful listening—now what? Before you enter your ears in the Hearing Hall of Fame, write down your main takeaways from the conversation, Gillihan suggests. This will help you store away all that valuable info you just learned for a later date. (If it doesn’t feel too weird, you can even do that in the middle of the one-on-one.) Then, look for ways to incorporate what your partner or colleague said into your everyday life, he advises. The S.O. wants you to share more of the household chores? Schedule times in your calendar so you don’t fall back on old habits. Or, if it’s a long-term request, like taking on a new work responsibility, Gillian recommends putting reminders of what the other person said somewhere where you’ll see them from time to time. (That way, you almost have no choice but to remember them.)
“When you’re an effective listener, you find out more about who your partner, friends, and colleagues are, what their life perspective is, how they handle certain situations, how they react to certain people,” says Shore. Then, the next time you see them at home or at work, you can more easily recognize a certain look on their face because it was the same expression they had when talking about a certain vulnerability or frustration. Then, all you have to do do is ask, “Are you doing okay?”
Not only does that offer them a(nother) chance to speak up—to someone they know will listen—but it also boosts their self-esteem. (They feel important because your actions show them they are.) At the workplace, “that will get you known as the person who has a finger on the pulse of what’s going on,” Shore says. Soon enough, you’ll be the teammate people like to have around for exactly that reason, and it’ll be that much easier to show yourself as a leader. The next thing you’ll be listening to? “You’ve been promoted.”