Listening may seem pretty simple, but is in fact much harder than it appears. It takes certain skills to be a good listener; not only to others, but to yourself as well. A good listener can make others feel important, valued, appreciated and loved. Becoming a better listener may take some practice and refining of the following skills.
The first skill that needs to be developed is being able to listen to yourself. Do you ever let yourself just think? If you are someone who always turns the TV or radio on, try turning them off. Drive in the car in silence; sit on your front porch without your phone. Just think. You may be surprised what your mind will tell you. Once you've listened, follow through. If you keep thinking about going for a morning run, go. Learn to hear what your body and spirit are telling you and act on it. Our subconscious thoughts can be exactly what we need to hear.
During a conversation with someone, it is natural to go back and forth while speaking to one another. You may stop the person and ask questions or give your imput before the whole story is told. This may be appropriate during a casual conversation, but when someone really needs you to listen, this is not OK. Wait until the whole story is told before asking questions. Most of your questions will probably be answered while the person is telling the story. If you have a hard time remembering what you want to ask, write down your questions while they are speaking. Also wait until the whole story is told before giving your opinion. If you interrupt with your opinion before he or she finishes the story, then you are undermining him or her and assuming that person did nothing, or did the wrong thing. Wait until he or she finishes talking, then procedure with your response.
Ask open-ended questions
A great way to show you are listening to a person is by asking open-ended questions at the end of the story. When you say something like, "What happened next?" rather than "So did you stop them?" or something that only requires a yes or no, it is giving them an opportunity to give you more information. Perhaps they will tell some details they forgot to add or clarification on a point you did not understand. It shows you are really interested in what happened, and not in simply ending the conversation.
It may be tempting to multi-task while listening to someone. Maybe cleaning a bathroom, making dinner or even watching a TV show. However, this is not a good way to show you are really listening. Even if you are great at multitasking, you are not giving 100 percent of your attention to someone, and may miss important information, body language or even emotion on a person's face or in their voice. Give your full attention to the speaker. Stop what you are doing, give visual and verbal indicators (such as nodding and saying "OK," "Yes" or "Really?") during the conversation. This encourages the person to go on and makes them feel like you are really understanding and listening to what they are saying.
Don't make the story about you
It is tempting to give someone an example from your own life to indicate that you understand what that person is going through. Perhaps you went through something similar; perhaps you also had a problem you did not know how to handle and want to share what you did. You feel you are showing them empathy, but what you are really doing is undermining them. As soon as you start talking about your own experience, you are basically one-upping the person. This may not be your intention, but it is what it seems like to the speaker. His or her problem or story is no longer the focus; the focus is now on the story you are sharing.
At times, giving an example from your own life is helpful; but unless the person specifically asks for advice, I would recommend avoiding this. Instead of changing to a story from your own life, keep the attention on what the speaker was explaining. Ask questions and go over what was said, but keep the focus on him or her and the story.
We've all heard the phrase "Read between the lines." Listening has the same philosophy. Sometimes it is what the speaker is not saying that is louder than the actual words. Observe their silences. How are they acting? What is their body language saying? Use these queues to see what it is they are NOT saying. It can be hard to confess or to tell something personal about ourselves, and it may not come right away. Give them time; don't rush or push them. Make them feel comfortable. Most importantly, let there be silence. Do not feel like you need to be speaking just because the other person stopped. Let the silence develop. Let it be what pushes them to share something they may not have if it wasn't there.
We all have times when someone wants to talk to us, and expects us to listen. Use those times to try out these skills; you may be surprised how your relationship improves and develops into something more meaningful.