“Woah, this Listening section is MASSIVE. Can’t I just have the TL;DR version?”
Sure! You found it! And, be aware that this page is only the tip of the iceberg. It overlooks a significant amount of nuance in what makes Listening powerful in order to prioritize brevity. A strong effort has been put into distilling the essence of the Listening section onto this page. Please consider it a summary and visit the corresponding pages for actionable detail.
Should you hope to deepen your Listening skills, be warned that reading this page alone (or even the entire Listening section for that matter) will not result in the change you’re seeking. To integrate these skills you MUST practice, reflect, and seek feedback.
(Luckily we have created practice sheets, journaling reflection prompts, and feedback quizzes for you to use! Check them out throughout or after exploring the Listening section by visiting the Practice and Exercises page.)
There are links throughout this page to each topic’s respective home in the Listening section should you be intrigued to dive deeper. 🙂
Here is what you need to know:
Most people (including you, probably) think they’re good at Listening.
Studies indicate that most people (including you, probably) are wrong. The good news is that Listening can be learned.
Why learn to listen better? Well…
Listening Can Change Your Life
The qualitatively massive difference between common, everyday listening and listening that can change your life relies on a commitment to innerwork.
By innerwork we’re not talking about something epically spiritual. That may be a part of the process for some, yet what we specifically mean by innerwork is uncovering your narratives about yourself and the world, the behavioral patterns related to such narratives, and the practice of consciously addressing them. This type of innerwork necessitates practicing your values, challenging your beliefs, and embracing an ambition for self-evolution.
Many know the basics of how to listen. “Active listening” is drilled into us in school. But no one taught us that real Listening- the kind that leads to deeper understanding, learning, and connection- is actually founded on integrity, genuine curiosity, and love.
These get broken down into a myriad of smaller components and actions. Such actions and perspectives add up to ways of being; being curious, loving, and integrous are not goals you get to accomplish and move past one day. They are not easily measurable items on a to-do list. They are life-long practices.
If you only take one thing away from the entire Listening section, or you choose not to read another line, please remember that if you want to become a better listener you must be deeply committed to curiosity, love, and integrity.
Maybe you think you already are. Stop to think about it deeper. How do you know you’re deeply committed? Are you consciously challenging your behaviors and thought processes in specific ways? Are you aware of your growth zones and challenges in these arenas?
In order to cultivate such qualities you must know yourself and have a sense of what you do not know. Knowing yourself enables you to see beyond yourself. Take the humble dog for instance. Perhaps it doesn’t know it is a dog and clearly doesn’t know it cannot see color. The dog is oblivious to this ignorance and operates in a world without a concept of the spectrum of visual and cognitive experiences other beings are having. When we apply the type of self-awareness we’re talking about for better Listening to the dog, it would be akin to the dog not only realizing it is a dog, but that there are others things to be and other ways to perceive!
If you became aware that your perception was limited and in which ways, you might become more curious about other experiences. You would not only understand that other experiences are possible, you’d also understand your own limitations. Humility of this ilk makes understanding others far more likely.
That is the foundation. Listening in a transformational manner begins with listening to ourselves. From there, the empathy and compassion we lend to ourselves empowers us to offer it to others.
We implore you not to focus excessively on techniques for Listening; while they are useful training wheels, we can get caught up in perfecting techniques instead of what they aim to channel. Rather than correcting little details, focus on the spirit.
With cultivation of curiosity, love, and integrity, the form will follow.
So how do you become a better Listener?
There are two levels from which to approach the practice of Listening. The Life-Long Work and the In-The-Moment Work. You can use actionable steps to help you build skills on a daily basis while keeping in mind the larger vision and themes of a Life-Long practice.
7 Steps in The Life-Long Work of Listening
- Become self-aware:
- Uncover your narratives, biases, and their related behaviors. Learn about Your Storied Life here.
- Identify your challenges and listening defaults so you can consciously address them. Visit Challenges in Listening here.
- Practice Mindfulness. Visit our Mindfulness Section here.
- Be integrous: Identify your values and how you want to show up in the world and in your relationships. Learn about your values here, and read more about intentions in Listening here.
- Be curious: Open yourself to the influence of other people, consider them the experts of their experiences, and assume they have something to teach you. The linchpin of curiosity is intellectual humility; curiosity is born on the grounds that we understand we do not (and cannot) know everything. Learn more about curiosity in Listening here, and about the concept more broadly here.
- Be authentic: Without authenticity trust is rare between a speaker and listener. Act in congruence with your highest values while acknowledging, accepting, and revealing your underlying emotions, physiological states, and beliefs. Authenticity is a vulnerable practice that may take courage. Learn more about authenticity while listening here and here.
- Regulate yourself: In order to be present with and fully receive the words of another person we must be operating from our frontal lobe where our higher-level reasoning, creativity, and judgment occurs. When we are emotionally unbalanced we cannot access these higher cognitive functions. Practice emotional awareness and regulation techniques like breathing, taking a break, or going for a walk in order to get there. Here is a masterlist of regulation techniques. Learn about regulation in Listening here.
- Pay attention: Learn how to be fully present with the person you are listening to by reminding yourself why you care and allowing your personal concerns and plans to pass by without distracting you. Do this with Presence, meditation, and mindfulness. Learn about attention in Listening here.
- Self-assess and get feedback regularly to be aware of your growth zones.
8 Steps in the Day-to-Day Work for Listening
Seek First to Understand
Make the primary intention of your conversations to Deepen Understanding.
We come into conversations with all kinds of agendas; we want to clarify or confirm something, we want to show someone we care, we want to find out their side of the story so we can better understand how to explain ourselves to them or prove them wrong, or perhaps we want to show that we’re caring, supportive, and polite.
Literally state this intention to yourself when you begin interacting with someone.
These agendas, conscious or not, interfere with our ability to really deeply understand what the other person is experiencing or trying to communicate.
Consciously de-prioritize these other agendas and choose to make understanding your absolute, first order of business.
Listen to Yourself First
- Ask yourself the following questions:
- How are you feeling emotionally? Angry? Sensitive? Happy?
- How are you feeling physically? Tired? Sick? Energized? Relaxed? Comfortable?
- Where are you at mentally? Distracted? Alert? What thoughts keep coming up?
- Decide if what you determined from these questions needs to be addressed or simply kept in mind. If you’re not sure, ask your conversation partner.
Without first checking in on what is going on for us, we might not be able to be fully present in a conversation.
It is vital to note what you are personally feeling, needing, or thinking before listening to someone else. Once you realize that you are very tired or very sad, then you can take steps to address this before jumping into listening to someone.
For example, maybe the conversation is too important to have while you’re tired so you request to have it another time. Or maybe you let the person know that you are feeling sad and may not be able to offer support like you normally do, but still feel open to hearing their story.
When you know what is up for you first, you can meet your needs (maybe have a snack?) and be better prepared to listen to someone.
And to be clear, this isn’t just something that happens at the beginning of a conversation. Oh no! It is a practice that carries through the entire time. It is imperative that we continue to check back in ourselves.
“Oof, that statement landed poorly with me.”
“Hmm, I disagree with that.”
“Wow, I’m really distracted by what I have to do later!”
This information empowers us to take action to meet our needs, communicate with our conversation partner, and enhance the chances of understanding by accounting for influences as they arise.
Regulate Your Emotions
- Scan your body for emotional changes during a conversation.
- When you notice something, identify and label it to yourself; ie. “Oo, that feeling in my throat feels like worry.”
- Take a deep breath, or try another simple regulation technique.
- If the emotion is stronger, let your conversation partner know you need a break; ask for what you need.
- Return to the conversation when you feel open and present.
When we get upset or triggered by a conversation we lose access to the part of our brain that enables logical reasoning, critical thinking, and problem solving. In order to really understand another person we need to be using this part of our brain! In order to get back there, we must regulate ourselves and be in a relatively neutral emotional state.
While “listening to yourself” during a conversation, monitor how you feel and if you’re having internal reactions to what is being said. When you notice discomfort, sadness, frustration, shock, elation, excitement, anxiety— take a moment to pause.
Then, choose a regulation technique that works for you. This may take a bit of time to find one that works for you personally. A tried-and-true option however is breathing exercises. Take a few deep breaths!
Visit this page to learn about other techniques!
Consider Outside Influences
- Ask yourself the following:
- How is culture impacting this interaction or affecting what or how something is said?
- How is the physical environment affecting this interaction?
- How might power or privilege be impacting this conversation?
- How could time be a factor in this interaction?
- Decide if what you determined from these questions needs to be addressed or simply kept in mind. If you’re not sure, ask your conversation partner.
Take time to consider outside influences on the conversation. Elements like the relationship dynamic, power differentials, the formality or privacy of the environment, and time constraints can play a part in how a conversation unfolds.
Take a moment to become curious about cultural norms and roles that could be affecting your interaction. Is the other person trying to be polite instead of honest? Is your idea of what a mother “should be” affecting how you’re engaging with the woman and her kids in line in front of you at check-out? How might this person be interacting with you based on differences in privilege?
You may not have to address these things directly, but if you’re wondering what the other person is thinking or feeling, just ask!
- Acknowledge your biases, judgments, and narratives.
- Remember that your agenda is to understand them, not necessarily agree with them!
- Remind yourself that you do not and cannot know everything and they may have something to teach you.
- Remind yourself that each person is the expert of their experience.
- Allow yourself to feel genuine curiosity regarding their experience.
Someone’s words have to pass through your filters of anger or other emotions, your political or moral beliefs, your personal preferences, your narratives about who and how they are, and even your narratives about who you are and how you are.
While listening to yourself you might notice some of these biases, beliefs, and perspectives. In order to understand another person it can serve us to consider that our beliefs, judgments and biases are just thoughts, not necessarily truths. We can open ourselves up to considering that we do not and cannot know everything. Intellectual humility enables us to become truly curious about another person’s experience.
Curiosity shows up as an unfettered genuine interest, eagerness to learn, and a humble, non-judgmental openness to what is present.
- Clear distractions and avoid multitasking (things like even having your phone out decreases feelings of connection!2).
- Make eye contact occasionally, turn your body somewhat towards the speaker.
- Consider the meaning of their body language; is it closed or open? Are they leaning towards you or away? Are they hunched or spread out? Etc.
- In terms of what they are saying:
- What is the literal content of their message?
- What are the possible meanings of their message?
- What are they choosing NOT to say?
- How might they be feeling?
It’s easy to be distracted by our own thoughts, what we want to say next, what’s going on around us, or how we want to respond. It doesn’t take a lot of brainpower to process the words someone is saying (we can process 400 words per minute but the average person speaks at 125 per minute1) and therefore we have extra capacity left over that can be used in service to listening better.
When focusing on the speaker, pay attention to various layers of meaning. We communicate not only with words, but with our bodies, our tone, and even what we choose not to say. There is a rich field of information being offered in every interaction and we can begin to pick up on more of it when we give the other person our full attention.
Ask Quality Questions
- Confirm what you understood by paraphrasing in your own words and asking if you got it right.
- Ask open-ended questions that invite story-like answers.
- Ask about things you are genuinely curious about.
- Ask questions that clarify unknowns or perspectives they have not considered.
- Avoid implying a correct answer or giving advice.
Asking questions is essential to understanding someone! Ask them to confirm and clarify what you understood. Share how you interpreted what they said in your own words and ask if you got it right.
People often feel more deeply heard when their conversation partner asks them questions that expand their perception of a situation. You can do this with “Quality Questions.” Quality questions are those that are insightful, non-judgmental, sincere, and open-ended.
Be Courageously Vulnerable and Compassionately Authentic
- Open yourself to being influenced by the other person.
- Remember that listening is not the same as agreeing.
- Share and respect your own boundaries.
- Reveal when something is coming up for you that is interfering in your ability to listen.
Listening deeply is a very vulnerable experience. As the Gottman Institute suggests, it can open us up to someone else’s influence. Being open to influence can be a positive thing! In cultivating the courage it takes to deeply listen to another human being, we must remind ourselves that listening is not the same as agreeing, “giving in,” or admitting that we’re wrong. Rather, it is opening up the space for deeper understanding and connection.
Beyond the vulnerability involved in receiving someone else’s words, it takes courage to set boundaries and ask for what we need as listeners in a conversation. Your needs are just as important in the conversation, and having them met or considered will enable you to listen better! Taking care of yourself is the foundation for taking care of a relationship.
“We suspect that in being a good listener, most of us are more likely to stop short rather than go too far. Our hope is that this research will help by providing a new perspective on listening. We hope those who labor under an illusion of superiority about their listening skills will see where they really stand. We also hope the common perception that good listening is mainly about acting like an absorbent sponge will wane. Finally, we hope all will see that the highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height and amplification. These are the hallmarks of great listening.” -Jack Zenger, CEO of Zenger/Folkman (a leadership development consultancy) for Harvard Business Review.
What Else Is There to Know About Listening?
Listening is tough. We are up against a lot! Most of the challenges we face in Listening have to do with a lack of awareness, attention, emotional regulation, and/or curiosity.
Common challenges within ourselves include:
- Allowing our emotions to determine our behavior; reacting instead of regulating and responding.
- Advising and trying to fix a situation.
- Getting distracted.
- Being attached to right and wrong.
- Listening for things that affirm our judgments and talking mostly with people we agree with.
- Being more focused on how we’re being seen than what the person is saying.
- Making assumptions about groups of people or ideas.
- Speaking more than listening.
- Focusing on what we’re going to say next.
On top of these habits we confront additional complications:
- We’re not always ready to listen. There are time constraints, or we’re physically or mentally distracted, or we’re not in the ideal emotional space to be open to what someone is sharing.
- The environment isn’t always perfect; maybe it’s too public or too cold or too noisy.
- There are often power dynamics (that get further influenced by personal histories) like listening to your superior or your employee, listening to an expert, navigating gender dynamics or privilege discrepancies.
So be gentle with yourself. Your Listening will not always be perfect.
To help you be gentle with yourself, here are some ways to take care of yourself while Listening:
- Make sure your needs are met before trying to emotionally support others. Get rest, eat enough, make sure you’re comfortable.
- “Anchor” yourself to yourself; stay aware of your body and independence in order to prevent getting caught up in another person’s experience.
- Establish and honor your boundaries; Learning to set boundaries can be very challenging. We have to develop a tolerance for being uncomfortable, for asking for what we need, and not being afraid that we will inconvenience or offend the other person.
- Be aware of privilege; Privilege is a power dynamic often unnoticed by the person who possesses it and has an enormous impact on our comfort with listening to someone. Consider how your own privilege or the other person’s may be affecting the sense of safety in a conversation.
- Don’t listen perfectly all the time. Don’t listen to everyone all the time. And certainly don’t listen to everyone perfectly all the time. Having the expectation to be a perfect listener in all situations and at all times is exhausting!
“Listening is an act of love. Giving time is an act of deep caring. Giving time means pausing, and allowing the silence to hold emerging thoughts… The core of listening is generosity, empathy, graciousness, and patience… At root, listening is an act of falling in love–with ourselves, with the people we are listening to.” James Navé, Poet
If this gist page whetted your palette, the best place to start to get a more in-depth look at Listening is the Factors in Listening page. However, any of the pages in this section will provide a granular look at the complexities and wonders of the phenomena of Listening. Allow your Curiosity to guide you!
- Orr, D. B., Friedman, H. L., & Williams, J. C. C. (1965). Trainability of listening comprehension of speeded discourse. Journal of Educational Psychology, 56(3), 148–156. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0021987
- Dwyer, R. J., Kushlev, K., & Dunn, E. W. (2018). Smartphone use undermines enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 78, 233-239. Science Direct. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2017.10.007