Listen Up! Part II: 15 Techniques to Improve Our Listening

by A Manly Guest Contributor on May 8, 2012 · 27 comments

in A Man's Life, Dating, Fatherhood, Friendship, Marriage, On Etiquette, Relationships & Family

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Tony Valdes.

Welcome back to our three-part series on becoming better listeners.  In the previous installment, we established that listening is a desirable ability to have as men.  But how can we practically begin to exercise this ability and develop it in ourselves?  There are active steps we can take to overcome obstacles and establish new listening habits.  That is what we’ll tackle today.

Sharpening our listening skills is relatively easy to begin practicing since most of it is based on knowing what constitutes good listening and what doesn’t.  Remember: listening is not a passive process, so all of the techniques below are active, including the ones that are not visible to the speaker.

1. Listen with an open mind

Be ready to hear and consider all sides of an issue.  This does not mean that we have to agree with what is being said, but rather that we must avoid defensiveness.  Another way to think of it is to go into an interaction ready to consider new viewpoints and ideas.  If it helps, equate this with the scientific process we were taught ad nauseam during grade school.  Every opinion and perspective we encounter while listening can be viewed as the hypothesis that we, as diligent pseudo-scientist listeners, can examine and experiment upon.  And just as third grade science debunked my lack of faith that wet paper towels could actually cause a lima bean to sprout, our willingness to listen to a different perspective will sometimes yield surprising new insights for us.     

2. Listen to the entire message without judging or refuting

Suppress the urge to let biases and prejudices prevent you from listening fully.  We can only do one thing effectively at a time: listen, judge, or respond.  Go in that order.  You have to begin with listening to the entire message, then you can weigh your thoughts against what has been said, and finally respond.  Allow each role to run its course in turn.  When you are the listener, you cannot simultaneously be the judge.  Our minds do not work in categories quite so neatly, but when we make this effort to suppress or postpone our desire to make premature judgments we become better listeners.

A great way to prepare for this in advance is to be aware of what your biases are and then try to reason out why you feel this way.  What “buzz words” or topics generate a strong emotional reaction–either positive or negative–in you?  If you judge and then speak too soon, you’ve opened the possibility of having missed a critical part of the message and thus embarrassing yourself by jumping to conclusions.

3. Determine the concepts and central ideas of the message

The best gauge to know whether you are listening or just hearing is whether or not you are actively looking for the central idea(s) of what is being said.  This could easily morph into a whole other issue about the structure of a message, but that is not our focus here.  Here, we are the listener, and if the message is well-constructed then our role will be easier, but we will not always have that luxury.  A great technique, regardless of the speaker’s ability to construct a message, is to listen in such a way that you can summarize what you gleaned to be the central idea(s).  What are the common threads–the ideas that seem to weave their way into everything being said?  If the situation allows, you can then share your summary with the speaker and confirm (or revise) your understanding.  Doing this builds your confidence as a listener, plus it proves to the speaker that you were listening.

4. Learn to adapt to the speaker’s appearance, personality, and delivery

Don’t allow a stereotype–either negative or positive–to influence your listening.  Despite conventional wisdom against judging a book by its cover, we do so consciously and unconsciously every day.  Appearance can be a major factor, and not everyone is blessed with dashing good looks or the sartorial wisdom we find here at The Art of Manliness.  We’re just going to have to deal with it.  After all, Abraham Lincoln was no George Clooney.  The sixteenth president of the United States was a homely-looking fella, but his words changed the course of history.

Beyond appearance, we should also spend some time coming to peace with the fact that there are different personalities, styles, and levels of ability.  As an English teacher, I have to weigh these elements with every paper I grade, so I understand how tedious it is to cope with things that run against your grain even if they aren’t necessarily “wrong.” Although it is far from a quick fix, it can be helpful to study rhetoric so that you can recognize what the speaker does well, thereby giving you something positive to focus on and making it easier to listen.  Likewise, studying rhetoric allows you to understand where exactly a speaker falls short, thus eliminating phantom annoyances and allowing you to recognize and accept the stylistic and delivery shortcomings for what they are as you listen.

5. Curb and overcome distractions

It takes very little to jerk our attention away from the work of listening.  We start out in life as good listeners.  Think about how much a baby learns within the first few years of his or her life.  Yet babies don’t attend classes, read textbooks, or go to seminars.  They simply listen, and they do it so well that eventually they start behaving like little adults.  Over time, however, a series of bad habits begins to sprout up.  Dr. Paine shared the following statistics with us: when a teacher suddenly stopped in the middle of a lesson and asked students to explain the content of the lesson thus far, 90% of first grade students could do so successfully.  That number drops to 80% in second graders, then plummets to 44% in middle school students, and a gut-wrenching 28% in high school.  In other words, despite how well we start, our bad habits develop rather quickly.

If we are to become better listeners, we must learn to recognize the obstacles we face.  Listening can be hard work and we are fickle–you might be surprised at how little it takes to derail us, especially when most of us were already at 28% recall as teenagers.  Examples of obstacles we must overcome include:

  • External noises (beeping, humming, etc.)
  • Psychological activity (worry, self-consciousness, preoccupation, etc.)
  • Physical conditions (temperature, odors, lighting, visual distractions, etc.)
  • Physiological conditions (pain, hunger, fatigue, etc.)
  • Semantic distractions (dialects, accents, unfamiliar vocabulary, etc.)
  • Technological distractions (the urge to check your phone, surf the net, etc.)

Being aware of what is distracting us at any given moment is half the battle.  However, when we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot overcome the obstacle, there is nothing wrong with letting the speaker know and suggesting a solution, such as a change of setting or having the discussion at another time.  Doing so communicates that we want to give our full attention.  Being aware of those times when we simply cannot muster the ability to do it is important too.  Listening requires effort, and we cannot always exert effort in listening any more than we can always lift weights or solve crossword puzzles.  It is okay to recognize limitations and the need for rest.  It is also okay to admit when we have zoned-out or potentially misunderstood/misheard something.  Everyone suffers from poor listening, and the speaker would be hard-pressed to condemn you for recognizing your lapse and making amends for it.

6. Attempt to find a connection to or personal interest in the speaker’s topic

Develop an attitude that there is always something potentially interesting or valuable to be gleaned, even if that means confirmation that you don’t find something interesting or valuable.  After all, if you’re exerting the effort, you might as well take something away from it.  If you’ve already predetermined that you are uninterested, it would be a Herculean effort for even the best speaker to make the topic interesting.  But if we only did the things that were immediately interesting to us, think how much we would miss out on.  Also consider how often seemingly useless information has served you well.  Finding connections and personal interest requires self-discipline, but maintaining a positive attitude is essential to being a good listener, especially in those situations where we would rather not listen.

7. Remember that listening does not equal agreement

I’ll admit that, even after Dr. Paine’s lessons, one of my greatest obstacles to listening is the irrational fear that the speaker (or others) will perceive my listening as agreement.  We should remember, however, that listening does not equal agreement.  Listening does not force us to silence our own opinions, it just asks us to show respect to others.  All that listening actually communicates is a willingness to communicate–and nothing more.  I think Dr. Paine said it best in these two statements: “Listening demands neither surrender nor agreement; instead, listening demands an open mind” and “Listening actually provides a powerful way to bring about change because listening is thinking, because listening is action.”

8. Stop trying to jump in and talk

Pay attention for the “turn taking” signals that are normally a part of the ebb and flow of conversation.  Suppressing the urge to voice our thoughts and opinions the moment they form makes us better listeners.  At the root of this struggle we’ll often find our ego: we believe what we have to say is more important than what they have to say.  However, whether we intend it to or not these interruptions devalue their message, and it is often rude and offensive.  It’s not that we can’t share what we have to say, but we must train ourselves to wait until the appropriate time to do so.  It is simply part of the social contract we have with others and honoring it is important–let the other person talk, and you can expect that they extend the same courtesy to you.  Of course there is a time and a place for interruption, but there is no formula for it.  It is at the mercy of your discretion, but when it becomes necessary to do so–or when the old habit rears its head–it is good to be apologetic and acknowledge that you are interrupting; that sort of awareness goes a long way towards mending your deliberate violation of the other person’s right to speak.

9. Show the speaker you’re listening

It is possible to listen without showing any external signs of it, but a stone-faced audience is rarely what anybody wants.  Visibly and audibly demonstrating that we are listening–that we are engaged with and/or interested in what is being said–is just as important as the listening itself. The key is to provide appropriate feedback.  As an added bonus, it helps the speaker to adjust his/her message to make it clearer and more interesting.  Here are some of the things we can do to confirm to others that we are listening:

  • Head nods
  • Leaning forward
  • Maintaining eye contact
  • Taking notes when appropriate
  • Verbal affirmation (asking questions of clarification, answering questions posed by the speaker when appropriate, and brief affirmations like “mrm-hrm”)

By contrast, here are many of the things we do, deliberately or not, which imply to others that we are not listening:

  • Crossing our arms
  • Fidgeting
  • Multitasking
  • Leaning away from the speaker
  • Failing to make steady eye contact
  • Failing to answer questions posed by the speaker

10. Pay attention to both verbal and non-verbal messages

Paying attention to body language is just as important as paying attention to the words.  If you need proof of the importance of body language, just think about how much more difficult it is to detect something like sarcasm during a phone conversation or in a text message without the benefit of seeing the person’s face and body. Without the ability to see another person’s facial expression, hand gestures, and other movements, we lose tremendous portions of the communication.  Don’t ignore it when you have the benefit of its presence!

11. Listen to silence

Like body language, an absence of words can be just as pregnant with meaning as the words themselves.  The tricky thing is that silence can imply almost anything.  It could signal anger (which of us has not been on the receiving end of the “silent treatment”?), anxiety, fear, shyness, or contentment, to name a few.  It could be something as simple as the need to think.  Not to complicate the matter, but silence can also mean nothing–literally.  And sometimes silence is just a pause; it is a moment of rest, and that’s okay.  In the film O Brother Where Art Thou?, Big Dan T the Bible salesman claims that the last thing you want is “air in the conversation,” which may be true if you are a fast-talking door-to-door salesman trying to push a product, but for the rest of us this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Silence gives everyone a chance to rest and think.  In fact, I find that the people I can have comfortable periods of silence with are those with whom I have the strongest relationships.   Try not to surrender to the urge to break silence–a little air in the conversation doesn’t hurt.  All of this should remind us of the importance of body language–listening is done with the eyes as much as it is with the ears.  A person’s body language will often give us the clues we need to interpret both words and the absence of words.

12. Plan to respond in some fashion

The situation will dictate what is appropriate and what is not (don’t blurt out questions in the middle of a eulogy, guys) but you should plan to find some way to respond to a speaker.  It might be simple non-verbal signals as the other person speaks.  It might be sharing your opinions, insights, or questions when the speaker has finished, perhaps in an email or handwritten letter, but do something to respond, even if it is small.

13. Ask questions to clarify the message

This is a positive way to show someone that you are listening.  I’m a high school teacher, so I know that makes me biased in this regard, but I believe the ability to ask questions is so important that we’ll be looking at it in great detail in the third part of this series. Sometimes asking a good question is more important than knowing the answer.

14. Take time to listen to yourself

We’ve already addressed the value of silence in a conversation and the pitfalls of the poor habits we so easily adopt.  But sometimes our worst habits and the least amount of silence are directed at ourselves.  Listening to yourself is a practice arena where you have unlimited opportunities to practice and the speaker (you) will be very forgiving when you stumble.  By listening to yourself, you are also better able to cope with obstacles such as prejudices and internal “noise.”  If your thoughts are in order, it will be much easier to attend to the thoughts of others.

Dr. Paine had entire assignments based wholly on listening to ourselves.  He would make a point to emphasize that the phones, televisions, and music should be off and that we find a comfortable place to be alone.  Eliminating the external distractions is only half the battle, though.  When listening to yourself, the internal racket is sometimes the greatest enemy.  Take time to sit in silence every so often–daily if you can–and listen to yourself without judgment or interruption.  Give the whirlwind of your thoughts however much time it needs to settle down.  What do you have to say to you?  For those of us who find even our emotions (let alone the emotions of others) to be an enigma most of the time–a veritable swamp of foggy confusion–silence is an invaluable way to untangle the knots.

15. Avoid faking attention and pretending to listen

The unique challenge that comes with learning to listen well is that we now know how to fake it.  But when someone thinks you were paying attention but in reality you weren’t, you are inviting trouble.  If the speaker notices, you are insulting him/her. If you are asked to respond in some way, then you will be caught unawares and will most likely suffer embarrassment.  And even if you can get away with it, you are gaining nothing except the reinforcement of bad habits.

Listen Up! Series
Part I: Learning the Manly Skill of Paying Attention
Part II: 15 Techniques to Improve Our Listening
Part III: Crafting Good Questions and Responses

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dwayne@TWC May 8, 2012 at 6:54 pm

I was never a really good listener until i read The Road Less Traveled and the author had a chapter where he discussed learning to listen intensely and focusing in on what was being said. This has helped me a ton and hope it helps others. Great post, Tony.

2 e.p. May 8, 2012 at 9:06 pm

This is a really excellent series! Thank you for the thorough explanation of ways to be a better listener; I am looking forward to the challenge of trying them out.

I have a question about the 8th technique; to stop trying to jump in and talk: is there a way to tactfully encourage others to do this? My partner interrupts me frequently and we have discussed it being a problem, yet it continues to happen. I am wondering if encouraging good listening habits in others is possible to do proactively, or if it is more of a matter of leading by example.

3 Mr Writing III May 8, 2012 at 9:46 pm

Excellent post. It is shocking how bad this is and unfortunately almost all of us are guilty of this. All good points and reminders.

4 jsallison May 8, 2012 at 9:53 pm

You mean besides beating vigorously with an Irish Blackthorn walking stick? Nope, can’t think of a thing. Might be the bourbon talking. ;)

5 Alexis May 9, 2012 at 6:28 am

Excellent post and great follow up to part one! At our house we all try to remember that to listen means that one is silent in thought and in word. This is especially helpful during disagreements.

6 NeckNooseAddict May 9, 2012 at 7:25 am

Wow! There is a multitude of useful information here. I work in a call center in which it seems every caller is already irate by the time I pick up the phone and my question would be: “What is the most manly way to handle being berated by a caller?” I have been doing this job for 2 yrs now (though have worked in customer service for 8 yrs) & this is really starting to get to me. I find myself outside work wanting to be around people less and less. I feel my job is killing the part of me that used to love people.

7 Daryl J. Yearwood May 9, 2012 at 7:59 am

Wonderful post. These are the basic tenets of civil discourse taught in rhetoric classes. I wish that political debate could return to a civil platform based on active listening skills and common manners. When they start shouting, I stop listening.

8 DJM May 9, 2012 at 9:09 am

Thank you for the time and effort put into this article, as well as the cogent and effective writing. It takes a lot of work, and I appreciate it.

9 Emily May 9, 2012 at 2:15 pm

As a lady, I’m overjoyed to see this series about listening! I find men (not to generalize at all!) can get so excited to speak their mind that they interrupt far too often without hearing out the talker to the end. Best comeback to this: oh, did the middle of my sentence interrupt the beginning of yours?

10 Jesse May 9, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Great series! I know I’m a poor listener and have often wondered how to work at it. Great work! Looking forward to part 3.

11 Richard May 10, 2012 at 1:37 am

Great posts- is it ok if I use this as a listening task in my ESL class?

12 Terrill May 10, 2012 at 10:09 am

Would you send a copy of this to the commentators on Fox News–O’Reilly, Hannity, Cavuto, Megan Ryan, Bret Brier, Greta Van Sustrin, etc, etc. Also to Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, and Dennis Miller.

13 Terrill May 10, 2012 at 10:10 am

Sorry. That’s Megan Kelly, not Ryan. But also send it to “The Five.”

14 dimitri May 10, 2012 at 10:26 am

This is a tall order. If it doesn’t happen spontaneously, simultaneously and subconsciously then you are NOT listening (properly). There is a problem that arises when you are genuinely listening and at one and the same time know intuitively that the speaker will have no interest in listening to you. This is almost always the case when you’re listening to a politician.

15 Matt May 10, 2012 at 12:23 pm

What was the middle part?

16 James May 10, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Great advice. One of my pet peeves is talking to someone who just has to “cut in” to let you know how “well they can relate” or “how I had something worse happen” midway through a sentence.

I’ll be passing this to a few people, as well all politicians!

17 Lida Lewis May 10, 2012 at 7:25 pm

Who is Dr. Paine?

18 Sudo koo May 10, 2012 at 7:39 pm

James, at least the always cutting in person is listening somewhat. They have to in order to “top” whatever you say. Even worse are the people that completely ignore your words, don’t acknowledge anything you say and just ramble on with their own self-absorption. My wife has a friend who does this, and after dealing with her doing this repeatedly, I just completely avoid the b**ch!

19 Ronald Gerard May 11, 2012 at 3:03 pm

I appreciate being reminded by Daryl J. Yearwood, above, that listening is basic to civil discourse. I have worked with men for many years, and the flip-side to being attentive to whomever is speaking is to be able to speak. I find that many men do not have an easy time of this, especially when speaking of themselves, what they want, believe, hope for, fear.
Thank you for the post.

20 Frans May 11, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Thank you for a great Part 1 and 2 on listening skills!
I’m from a very international background; my father being Swedish, and my mother Finnish. Also, I grew up in Spain and Germany.
Hence, listening skills, and the development of those, have always interested me. It can be a source of much unnecessary conflict.
I think all the points raised in the article are important for everyone (both men and women) to take the time to internalize.
Personally I feel that ‘Semantic distractions’ can often times be the most relevant, as discussions (or arguments) can break down when both people/parties assume the other understands the ideas discussed in the same way they themselves understand it.
Other than that, I believe the development of (or perhaps awareness of) etiquette in regards to ‘Technologic distractions’ needs to be stressed more. Both at home, in the work place, and in other personal relationships.
Thanks again for a great article. I’ve enjoyed AoM articles for quite a few years now, and log in every week to read some more. Keep up the great work!

21 Odak May 11, 2012 at 9:57 pm

I always appreciate the image of the silent chief. The kind of stern, stoic man who waits and lets everyone give their piece before making the final decision. That’s the classic masculine style.

Read somewhere that women need 1000 words to say how their day went, whereas a man only needs 100.

22 Lindsay May 14, 2012 at 5:16 pm

What about people who don’t let you get a word in edgewise? Listening to them is no problem, but some people don’t give you a chance to make any response, and you almost have to interrupt them if you want to contribute anything to the conversation. This can be really bad in meetings, when someone may take over the conversation, and I’ve heard it get ugly with someone talking louder to be heard over someone else!

23 Jason May 15, 2012 at 3:55 am

I have found sometimes that I dismiss what a person has to say because I have some preconceived notions about them. When a person does not “appear” intelligent, or speak in a way that demonstrates a high level of education don’t be deceived, that doesn’t mean that they are not knowledgable or wise. This really hurts listening in a cross-cultural context because the speaker may have a limited knowledge of English but be a rocket scientist in their own language. What I am trying to say is don’t miss the wisdom in the book because of the quality or condition of the cover. Some of the wisest people I have ever met dressed in laborers clothes, and don’t be deceived some of them just did it to shock or gain the upper hand. Listen like every person has something to say that you might benefit from, and you will.

24 Greenham May 16, 2012 at 10:11 am

Fantastic Post, I have always had trouble with point nine; Its deceptively easy to give a speaker the impression you aren’t paying attention. I also second Lindsay’s point, some people don’t seem to leave any natural breaks in their conversation for anyone to respond.

25 Don May 18, 2012 at 7:17 pm

There are some aspects of listening that vary from culture to culture. I am married to a wonderful Hispanic woman. I have found that, in the Hispanic culture I have been exposed to, jumping in to a conversation before the speaker has finished is a sure sign that the listener is engaged. In fact, waiting for the speaker to finish can be interpreted as disengagement or boredom. This is completely contrary to my upbringing where you let someone finish before you spoke. Keeping this in mind can help you hone your techniques if you are communicating with someone with a different cultural background.

26 Ara Bedrossian June 1, 2012 at 8:57 am

My saying is: “Stare and Share. Connect, don’t convince.”
A lost art, I’m glad you addressed this. Cheers.

27 Daniel October 3, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Fantastic post! I really want to learn to listen and this has given me so much good information… I really can’t wait until tomorrow to read about asking a good question, as I too feel that a good question is sometimes more valuable than the answer.

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