Listen Up, 4 Surprising Ways to be a Better Listener

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    Mary got nervous every time her manager started a conversation with her. She was worried she would forget some critical piece of information. That anxiety interfered with her ability to focus and remember what was said. As a result, she tried to write down everything that was said during every conversation. Since we speak much faster than we can write, she fell behind and her attention was divided. Her anxiety increased, and her listening became even more ineffective. It became a real issue between them, until she learned how to be a more effective listener. You can learn what Mary did, and improve your listening skills today.

    Before the conversation. Take a moment to think about the purpose of your listening. Are you listening for facts, feelings, or both? If you are listening to directions for your sales meeting, you really need to attend to the facts of the matter and get them right. If you are listening to a friend talk about her weekend you may be attending mainly to the emotional aspects of her talk. Sometimes you need to attend to both, for example, when speaking with a job candidate you will want to attend to both the interpersonal connection and the details being shared.

    During the conversation. Pay attention—without judging—to the delivery of the speaker. Consciously notice the expressions on his face, the tone of her voice, the set of his shoulders. If all of these seem to match what he or she is saying, there is a good chance the message is straightforward. If you see signs of a mismatch (she says she is not angry but her voice sounds angry) be a little more cautious; these are mixed signals and you would be wise to keep the conversation going until the real issues surface.

    Throughout the conversation. Keep your eye contact and mental attention directed at the speaker. We probably wouldn’t check our watch when someone is speaking, but we can easily be distracted by a ping from our phone, someone walking by, or that TV screen overhead at the restaurant. If you truly intend to be a good listener, keep your attention focused, or admit that it is not. “I’m sorry, but I was distracted just a moment ago. Where we’re we?” It isn’t pretty, but it is a whole lot more honest than nodding while trying to sneak a peek at your messages.

    After the conversation. If this communication was important, take a few moments right afterward to jot down your observations and impressions. Make note of facts, feelings and agreements or follow-up actions. Try to take these notes as soon after the meeting as you can, before other imperatives and distractions cloud your memory. But don’t try to write too many notes during the conversation, as this can hinder your ability to focus and listen.

    Listening is one of the most important yet least understood communication skills. Test your own listening skills here, and try these four tips for more effective listening.


    Author Gail Zack Anderson, founder of Applause, Inc. is a Twin Cities-based consultant who provides coaching and workshops for effective presentations, facilitation skills for trainers and subject matter experts, and positive communication skills for everyone. She can be reached at

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    twitter: @ApplauseInc