Listening is almost like our heartbeat, a constant skill we do without
thought and often neglect the
significance of it. We may occasionally have to ask someone, “are
you listening to me?!” during an important conversation, but how
often do we reflect on how well
we are listening to
what someone else has to say. Taking the time to engage our listening skills, and learn how to do it
better, is a great way to improve. Reading this blog and implementing
the tips provided may not take a huge portion of your time, but the impacts
can be tremendous – both for you and the people you communicate with.
The Science Behind Active Listening
Listening is one of the most important skills we can learn and utilize
in life: communication is vital, and your ability to help others converse
with you is priceless. Unfortunately, listening seems to be taking a backseat
as of late, as “a 2006 study of college students showed they spent
about 24% of their time listening to others face to face or in groups,
down from 53% in 1980, when a comparable study was conducted, says Laura
Janusik, an associate professor of communication at Rockhurst University,
in Kansas City, Mo.”3
However, listening is crucial to living a fulfilled life, and the science
proves this. One study was extremely telling: “test takers were
asked to sit through a ten-minute oral presentation and, later, to describe
its content. Half of adults can’t do it even moments after the talk,
and forty-eight hours later, fully 75 percent of listeners can’t
recall the subject matter.” So, where is the disconnect? It all comes down to brain matter. “The
human brain has the capacity to digest as much as 400 words per minute
of information. But even a speaker from New York City talks at around
125 words per minute. That means three-quarters of your brain could very
well be doing something else while someone is speaking to you.”1
Psychology researcher John Stewart, author of
U&Me: Communicating in Moments That Matter and other seminal texts on interpersonal communication, found that, “Genuine
listening requires humility and curiosity—and neither can be successfully
faked.” His findings are mirrored by another professional, Philip Tirpak, who
is an instructor of communication studies at Northern Virginia Community
College and president of the International Listening Association.2 As such, you can work to combat this and improve your ability to listen,
comprehend, and retain information through a practice known as
mindful listening. This isn’t special so much as it is purposeful: mindful listening
requires you to focus on listening actively, rather than passively. Listening
is a multi-dimensional action: it requires you to rely on more of your
senses, as you listen with your eyes, not just your ears.
How to Listen
A common misconception is that listening occurs while the other person
is talking. This isn’t necessarily the whole truth; rather, mindful
listening is a conscious action that benefits from a little preparation.
Here are some listening tips to consider prior to the conversation:
Clear your mind: let go of any distractions or lingering thoughts. It might
be helpful to make “task lists you can easily pick up again later”
if you are especially busy.
If this conversation holds a specific purpose, such as a doctor’s
visit, “make a list of questions or topics you want to cover”
so that you don’t forget anything.3
Open yourself up, and make a promise to be receptive: let go of assumptions
regarding what “you think the other person will say.”3
- Eliminate, or at least limit, distractions: put your phone on silent, turn
off the T.V., or turn down the car radio.
Remember, the key to listening is being mindful and aware. Rather than
focusing on the task of listening, think of it more as opening yourself
completely to the other person and the conversation; be present and limit
your ability to be distracted by disturbances, focusing on what the other
person is saying, how they are saying it, and why they are saying it.
You are now listening with a purpose: not to gather enough information
to respond appropriately, but listening to comprehend what the other person
and what they’re trying to communicate with you. You are also listening
to their body language and how their tone or posture changes based on
what they are saying. Included below are some helpful tips on listening
to keep in mind during your discussion.
Throughout the conversation:
- Engage with your body language: make eye contact, and face the person you
are talking to. Try not to fidget, especially with your phone or other
- Relax: there is a balance between being engaged and looking rigid. You
want your body language to show you are present and focused on what the
other person is saying, but you want to make sure you are doing so in
a comfortable manner. Don’t be afraid to smile, or even look away
from time to time. Moderation is key: it’s what differentiates engaging
eye contact from staring.
Make sure you’re getting the right information: ask questions if
you don’t understand, or paraphrase what the speaker said back to
them. This is especially helpful if you want to redirect the conversation
back to a more positive place, or you want to avoid misunderstandings.
- This works two ways: don’t be afraid to repeat yourself if you feel
as though you are being misunderstood. This reflects your ability to listen
because when you are listening attentively and with purpose, you have
a stronger sense of how you are both communicating with each other.
- Be reactive: good listening involves absorbing a lot of information, and
great listening reacts to the information you are being given. By this,
take note of the other speaker’s body language and facial expressions.
These nonverbal cues are priceless: how often do misunderstandings occur
over text or email where nonverbal cues are not present? Take advantage
of them, as they help paint the whole picture of the conversation. Their
cues may reveal if you need to explain something further, change your
tone, or engage the other person more (as in, don’t talk so much
they become disengaged! Speaking of…)
- Don’t be afraid to pause! “Awkward silences” are only
as awkward as you let them be, and they are usually far more positive
and purposeful than you think. These are a quick and painless way to transition
to the next speaker, especially if someone feels as though they are not
being given enough time to talk or respond. They also give each person
a second to stop and reflect, and then absorb and comprehend the information
that is being communicated.
- Keep an open mind: sometimes conversations occur that aren’t easy
or carefree, but they are still important. Part of mindful listening means
that you try to see the other person’s point of view, even if you
don’t necessarily agree with it. Take the time to put yourself in
their shoes by comprehending all of what they are telling you; don’t
close yourself off to certain details or anecdotes. You can disagree later,
but while they are speaking, your goal is to listen for comprehension.
The Bottom Line
Listening is the fundamental of communication – whether the conversation
is simple and complex. In order to successfully engage with another person,
we must be able to listen and comprehend what the other is saying. We
hope that these skills help you improve your ability to listen, and in
turn help the other people in your life to see how much you care for and
enjoy engaging with them.
To further enhance your communication skills, you can read about how to
communicate with your doctor better
here. If you want to communicate with someone regarding obtaining alternative
cancer treatment, we at CMN are happy to serve you. You can email us at
firstname.lastname@example.org or click
here for other ways to contact us at your convenience.
 Sullivan, Bob and Hugh Thompson. “Now Hear This! Most People Stink
at Listening [Excerpt].
Scientific American. 2013.
 Sea Gold, Sunny. “How to be a better listener.”
Scientific American. 2015.
 Shellenbarger, Sue. “Tuning In: Improving Your Listening Skills.”
The Wall Street Journal. 2014.
 “10 Steps to Effective Listening.”
WomensMedia, Forbes. 2012.