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Published on December 30, 2020

7 Actionable Ways to Develop Good Listening Skills

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7 Actionable Ways to Develop Good Listening Skills

Good listening skills are important in just about any area of life. Looking at your own life, can you identify why you want to be a better listener?

Is it to get closer to a loved one? Do you want to begin to understand where your boss is coming from? Do you want to make a good impression at work or among a new group of friends?

Whatever the reason, if you follow these 6 simple steps, you will be on your way to being an expert listener that people open up to with confidence.

1. Recognize What Kind of Listener You Are

Self-awareness is essential as you’re developing good listening skills. You have to know where you are before you can truly change your behavior[1]. Pay attention to the cues other people are giving you as to what kind of listener you are right now. Do any of these ring true?

The Space out

The space out listener can’t maintain focus on the speaker. They get distracted easily and are not concentrating on what the speaker is saying.

The Interrupter

This person can’t help themselves and butts in while the speaker is talking to share something similar that happened to them recently or share another anecdote they think is related.

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The Fixer

This is the person who listens to solve your problem and give unsolicited advice. While their intentions may be helpful, they miss the nuance that the speaker is perfectly capable of handling the situation; they just might need to talk it through.

The Faker

Similar to the space out listener, the faker takes it the extra mile by uttering responses like “Mm-hmm,” “Yep,” “Oh, really?” “Wow, interesting.” They are distracted, on their phone, listening to music, or watching YouTube videos and don’t have a clue as to what you’re saying.

We have all been in conversations with bad listeners. Let’s prevent ourselves from doing that with others through thoughtful and intentional practice of active listening[2].

2. Decide to Be a Better Listener

This is a choice you are actively making in order to improve your relationships at work or at home, so commit to practicing some good listening skills. Here are some things active listeners do on a regular basis:

Listen Without Judgment

They listen to learn and to understand what the other person is saying while setting aside assumptions and experiences they have that might be similar.

Communicate Through Non-Verbal Cues

These cues can include eye contact, nodding, smiling, facing the speaker, and putting their phone away and out of sight. These are also known as body language cues and let the speaker know you are connecting with what they are saying.

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3. Make a Plan

Before speaking with someone, plan out your actions in your head. Decide what you will and won’t do during the conversation to practice good listening skills. For example:

  • I will silence and put away my phone.
  • I will adjust my chair so I am facing the person and making eye contact.
  • I will listen with curiosity and without judgment.
  • I will reflect back what they are saying and ask clarifying questions to help me understand their message.
  • I won’t interrupt.
  • I won’t get distracted by my phone or other people.
  • I won’t listen to solve or fix.

4. Change the Channel

Close your eyes and imagine flipping a switch from on to off. Now, do it again but imagine that Channel 1 is “me-focused” and Channel 2 is “empathy focused.”

When you flip to Channel 2 before a conversation, you automatically prepare by putting away your phone, facing the speaker, suspending judgement, and getting curious about what you are going to learn from this other person.

5. Reflect Back What You Hear

Reflecting back what you hear means summarizing or paraphrasing what they are saying just so they know you hear them. This helps them feel understood and eliminates the possibility of moving forward with incorrect information.

For example, if your boss is describing a project they want done next week, you can reflect the information back with a simple sentence like, “Ok, I understand that you want Project X done by Wednesday at noon, correct?”

6. Listen to Understand, Not to Fix

Listen more than you speak, and be aware of what your brain is doing while the other person is talking. Are you making assumptions? Are you thinking of what advice you can give to make the person feel better and solve his/her situation?

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Remind yourself to listen without judgement and to only offer advice if asked. Good listening skills involve listening to the story the way they are telling it and showing, through non-verbal cues and clarifying questions, that you are hearing and understanding them.

7. Prepare, Practice, Reflect

This is a short routine you can do to improve good listening skills.

Step 1: Prepare Yourself

Similar to Pavlov’s dog experiment from the 1900’s[3], we are going to set up a conditioned response for ourselves every time someone asks “Can I talk with you about something?” Every time someone invites you in to a conversation, you will immediately do these three actions:

  1. Say yes to the invitation.
  2. Silence your phone and put it in a drawer, a purse, or in another room.
  3. Face the speaker and make friendly eye contact.

Now that you are physically set up to listen, let’s discover how you will listen.

Step 2: Practice Active Listening Techniques

Be curious about what you will learn from this person. Suspend judgement and put your advice channel on mute. Listen to understand, not to fix or advise. Reflect back what you hear or ask clarifying questions.

These simple techniques will work wonders for any conversation you enter.

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Step 3: Reflect on How You Did as a Listener

Were you truly present in that moment for the other person, or was your mind wandering? Was it challenging to maintain focus on the speaker? If the answer is yes, this is totally normal and expected because you are building a new skill and re-training your brain to execute this new skill on command. With consistent practice and focus on building this skill, it will soon become a habit.

Final Thoughts

Being a better listener starts with you. You must intentionally prepare your mind for good listening skills because your brain is much too busy with managing your life, worries, and anxieties. When you make the decision to be a better listener, you are tapping into your empathy.

You are actively focusing on the other person and what they need right now. They don’t need to be fixed or told what to do; they need to talk something through, and they picked you as their thought partner. The moment you give the other person your full attention, you are set up for a successful and meaningful conversation.

More Tips on Becoming a Better Listener

Featured photo credit: Christin Hume via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Scientific American: Now Hear This! Most People Stink at Listening
[2] MIT: Key Tips for Active Listening
[3] Simply Psychology: Pavlov’s Dogs

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Carol Zee

Teaching effective communication skills for 20+ years

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Last Updated on July 20, 2021

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

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How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

Warming up

If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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  1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
  2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
  3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

Stay hydrated

Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

Meditate

Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

2. Focus on your goal

One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

3. Convert negativity to positivity

There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

4. Understand your content

Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

5. Practice makes perfect

Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

6. Be authentic

There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

7. Post speech evaluation

Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

Improve your next speech

As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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  • How did I do?
  • Are there any areas for improvement?
  • Did I sound or look stressed?
  • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
  • Was I saying “um” too often?
  • How was the flow of the speech?

Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

Reference

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