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
- 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.