Four Ways to Be a Better Listener

Eleni Kelakos presentation skills training, public speaking training, speech coaching

As I was prepping the stuffing for my Thanksgiving turkey, I happened to catch Joshua Johnson’s great interview show, 1 A on NPR.  The topic of the program —How Not to Fight with Your Family on Thanksgiving—seemed quite fitting for these politically polarized times.

Mr. Johnson kicked off the show with a lively conversation with communication expert, Celeste Headlee—she’s the host of On Second Thought on Georgia Public Radio and the author of a book now queued in my Kindle reader, We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That MatterHer TED talk, “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation” has been viewed more than 11 million times (which, I think, says something about our collective yearning to communicate more effectively).

Ms. Headlee shared a great deal of fascinating information and practical suggestions about how to be a better listener, which I scribbled down on a piece of paper towel while chopping veggies.  Here are four simple, powerful suggestions I recovered from my notes:

  1. Stop trying to change someone’s mind; it’s hard enough for you to change your own. How much time have you wasted trying to get somebody else to think or believe as you do?  Trying to change someone else’s mind is a lot of work and a lot of pressure.  Think of the relief you might feel if you’re willing to release the need to change someone’s mind.
  2. Get curious about someone else’s perspective. I’ve repeated something like this to my coaching clients for years—“Turn on your curiosity button!” Absorbing yourself in the act of getting to know what someone else thinks, believes, and has experienced allows them to open up and feel seen and heard. And you might just learn something you didn’t know.
  3. Stop trying to instruct; instead, listen to learn. Headlee pointed out that smart people tend to try to solve things with logic. Because they know a lot, they tend to go into conversations trying to educate, which will stop a conversation in its tracks.
  4. Don’t avoid difficult conversations. Avoiding a conversation doesn’t help a relationship—it hurts it. According to Ms. Headlee, to have more effective conversations about difficult topics, you must do three things: Share the space; listen as much as you talk; and listen and respond to what the other person is actually saying (instead of tuning out and waiting to share your talking points).

Listening takes energy and practice. It’s like a muscle that gets stronger with use.  Put Ms. Headlee’s suggestions into regular practice, and strengthen your listening muscle—for the good of your relationships, and, in my humble opinion, for the good of the greater world.