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Published on December 30, 2020

7 Actionable Ways to Develop Good Listening Skills

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

7 Actionable Ways to Develop Good Listening Skills

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Last Updated on January 15, 2021

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

The popular idiomatic saying that “actions speak louder than words” has been around for centuries, but even to this day, most people struggle with at least one area of nonverbal communication. Consequently, many of us aspire to have more confident body language but don’t have the knowledge and tools necessary to change what are largely unconscious behaviors.

Given that others’ perceptions of our competence and confidence are predominantly influenced by what we do with our faces and bodies, it’s important to develop greater self-awareness and consciously practice better posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, and other aspects of body language.

Posture

First things first: how is your posture? Let’s start with a quick self-assessment of your body.

  • Are your shoulders slumped over or rolled back in an upright posture?
  • When you stand up, do you evenly distribute your weight or lean excessively to one side?
  • Does your natural stance place your feet relatively shoulder-width apart or are your feet and legs close together in a closed-off position?
  • When you sit, does your lower back protrude out in a slumped position or maintain a straight, spine-friendly posture in your seat?

All of these are important considerations to make when evaluating and improving your posture and stance, which will lead to more confident body language over time. If you routinely struggle with maintaining good posture, consider buying a posture trainer/corrector, consulting a chiropractor or physical therapist, stretching daily, and strengthening both your core and back muscles.

Facial Expressions

Are you prone to any of the following in personal or professional settings?

  • Bruxism (tight, clenched jaw or grinding teeth)
  • Frowning and/or furrowing brows
  • Avoiding direct eye contact and/or staring at the ground

If you answered “yes” to any of these, then let’s start by examining various ways in which you can project confident body language through your facial expressions.

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1. Understand How Others Perceive Your Facial Expressions

A December 2020 study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers utilized a deep neural network to analyze facial expressions in six million YouTube clips representing people from over 140 countries. The study found that, despite socio-cultural differences, people around the world tended to use about 70% of the same facial expressions in response to different emotional stimuli and situations.[1]

The study’s researchers also published a fascinating interactive map to demonstrate how their machine learning technology assessed various facial expressions and determined subtle differences in emotional responses.

This study highlights the social importance of facial expressions because whether or not we’re consciously aware of them—by gazing into a mirror or your screen on a video conferencing platform—how we present our faces to others can have tremendous impacts on their perceptions of us, our confidence, and our emotional states. This awareness is the essential first step towards

2. Relax Your Face

New research on bruxism and facial tension found the stresses and anxieties of Covid-19 lockdowns led to considerable increases in orofacial pain, jaw-clenching, and teeth grinding, particularly among women.[2]

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that more than 10 million Americans alone have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome), and facial tension can lead to other complications such as insomnia, wrinkles, dry skin, and dark, puffy bags under your eyes.[3])

To avoid these unpleasant outcomes, start practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques and taking breaks more frequently throughout the day to moderate facial tension.[4] You should also try out some biofeedback techniques to enhance your awareness of involuntary bodily processes like facial tension and achieve more confident body language as a result.[5]

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3. Improve Your Eye Contact

Did you know there’s an entire subfield of kinesic communication research dedicated to eye movements and behaviors called oculesics?[6] It refers to various communication behaviors including direct eye contact, averting one’s gaze, pupil dilation/constriction, and even frequency of blinking. All of these qualities can shape how other people perceive you, which means that eye contact is yet another area of nonverbal body language that we should be more mindful of in social interactions.

The ideal type (direct/indirect) and duration of eye contact depends on a variety of factors, such as cultural setting, differences in power/authority/age between the parties involved, and communication context. Research has shown that differences in the effects of eye contact are particularly prominent when comparing East Asian and Western European/North American cultures.[7]

To improve your eye contact with others, strive to maintain consistent contact for at least 3 to 4 seconds at a time, consciously consider where you’re looking while listening to someone else, and practice eye contact as much as possible (as strange as this may seem in the beginning, it’s the best way to improve).

3. Smile More

There are many benefits to smiling and laughing, and when it comes to working on more confident body language, this is an area that should be fun, low-stakes, and relatively stress-free.

Smiling is associated with the “happiness chemical” dopamine and the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. Many empirical studies have shown that smiling generally leads to positive outcomes for the person smiling, and further research has shown that smiling can influence listeners’ perceptions of our confidence and trustworthiness as well.

4. Hand Gestures

Similar to facial expressions and posture, what you do with your hands while speaking or listening in a conversation can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you in positive or negative ways.

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It’s undoubtedly challenging to consciously account for all of your nonverbal signals while simultaneously trying to stay engaged with the verbal part of the discussion, but putting in the effort to develop more bodily awareness now will make it much easier to unconsciously project more confident body language later on.

5. Enhance Your Handshake

In the article, “An Anthropology of the Handshake,” University of Copenhagen social anthropology professor Bjarke Oxlund assessed the future of handshaking in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:[8]

“Handshakes not only vary in function and meaning but do so according to social context, situation and scale. . . a public discussion should ensue on the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the tradition of shaking hands as the conventional gesture of greeting and leave-taking in a variety of circumstances.”

It’s too early to determine some of the ways in which Covid-19 has permanently changed our social norms and professional etiquette standards, but it’s reasonable to assume that handshaking may retain its importance in American society even after this pandemic. To practice more confident body language in the meantime, the video on the science of the perfect handshake below explains what you need to know.

6. Complement Your Verbals With Hand Gestures

As you know by now, confident communication involves so much more than simply smiling more or sounding like you know what you’re talking about. What you do with your hands can be particularly influential in how others perceive you, whether you’re fidgeting with an object, clenching your fists, hiding your hands in your pockets, or calmly gesturing to emphasize important points you’re discussing.

Social psychology researchers have found that “iconic gestures”—hand movements that appear to be meaningfully related to the speaker’s verbal content—can have profound impacts on listeners’ information retention. In other words, people are more likely to engage with you and remember more of what you said when you speak with complementary hand gestures instead of just your voice.[9]

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Further research on hand gestures has shown that even your choice of the left or right hand for gesturing can influence your ability to clearly convey information to listeners, which supports the notion that more confident body language is readily achievable through greater self-awareness and deliberate nonverbal actions.[10]

Final Takeaways

Developing better posture, enhancing your facial expressiveness, and practicing hand gestures can vastly improve your communication with other people. At first, it will be challenging to consciously practice nonverbal behaviors that many of us are accustomed to performing daily without thinking about them.

If you ever feel discouraged, however, remember that there’s no downside to consistently putting in just a little more time and effort to increase your bodily awareness. With the tips and strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to embracing more confident body language and amplifying others’ perceptions of you in no time.

More Tips on How to Develop a Confident Body Language

Featured photo credit: Maria Lupan via unsplash.com

Reference

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