Most people consider themselves good listeners, yet everyone knows the frustration of talking to someone and feeling unheard.
Developing stronger listening skills naturally leads to understanding others better. A good listener doesn’t just register the words being said; they do their best to understand what the speaker means. That requires active listening, a skill that comes naturally to some but that anyone can learn.
Here’s how to stop yourself from falling into 5 bad listening habits:
1. You start to think about what you want to say while the other person is still talking.
We like to share our opinions and our experiences. In fact, the average person talks about themselves 60% of the time in any conversation. So in the middle of a rousing discussion among friends, you have a fascinating thought or relevant story that you want to share. Once you start focusing on what you’ll say when it’s your turn to talk, you miss what is actually being said.
Fix it: Retrain your thoughts and return your attention to the speaker. You need to take your cues from them, and their next words might make the speech forming in your head irrelevant. If you have something to add to the conversation, you should have no problem covering all the points you want to make when they finish talking.
2. You assume that you understand exactly what the speaker means or feels.
If a friend starts telling you about an awkward situation at work or at home, your mind will naturally go to your own similar experiences. But your feelings may not mirror the speaker’s feelings or experience, and that can make your response sound unsympathetic or clueless.
Fix it: Check your assumption with the speaker by asking questions. You might ask, “Are you worried that you might lose your job?” to the friend relating their work issue, only to find out that they just feel frustrated by a situation that isn’t going as well as they’d like. Thoughtful questions may spark them to think about the root cause of their frustration as you try to form an understanding. That kind of dialogue is what makes for a productive conversation.
3. You don’t pay enough attention to the person speaking.
Body language, tone of voice and facial expressions add another layer of context to the words being said. If you are distracted by your phone or your surroundings, you can miss shifts in tone or movement that indicate discomfort or anger.
Fix it: Look at the person you are talking to and engage in regular eye contact throughout the conversation. Learn to read unspoken cues. You don’t need to blurt out a direct challenge — ex. “You seem uncomfortable.” — but if you notice they do seem that way, consider what might make them feel more comfortable in the moment, whether it’s a pat on the shoulder or just a tilt of the head. Making an effort to understand the person talking will help you respond in an appropriate and helpful way.
4. You try to solve the speaker’s problem.
You’ve listened carefully as someone close to you pours their heart out about a situation that has them feeling bad. You’ve asked questions. You’ve noticed their body language. And then, after considering all they have said, you offer them some possible solutions to their problem. And they get angry, frustrated or shut down. What just happened?
Fix it: Sometimes, complaining is just a way to express frustration and feel supported in your feelings. Start by holding back a little, even if a solution seems obvious to you immediately. Ask questions about how they feel and keep it simple: “How can I help?” They will tell you what they need from you, and if that includes a solution to their problem, offer yours.
5. You jump in to fill silences.
They say that silence is golden, but long pauses in conversation make some people antsy. The scramble to jump in and get the talk started again can be a form of interruption. The speaker may just be thinking about how they want to phrase their next thought.
Fix it: Think of silence as part of conversation. Take a breath before you start to speak and allow yourself time to think about what you are about to say. When you slow down the pace of a conversation, you will become more comfortable with occasional silent moments.