1. Practise being present. The International Listening Association reports that we think at 1,000 to 3,000 words per minute -- a lot faster than we are able to listen. We fill in this gap with our thoughts, by planning what to say next, judging whether we agree with the speaker or thinking about a different matter altogether.
Elizabeth Berlasso, a Halifax-based psychotherapist, suggests taking time to practise being mindful every day so we can learn to be more in the moment and stop our minds from wandering.
Try this: Choose a routine activity, such as washing the dishes, and get all of your senses involved. Pay attention to how the water feels on your hands, listen to the splashing sounds and watch the suds melt away.
Tip: If you start to think about a problem at work, gently bring your attention back to the dishes. "Our mind is like a wild horse," says Berlasso, who also gives workshops in mindfulness-based stress reduction. "Mindfulness is how we make friends with the horse, allowing us to be more present with our listening."
2. Adopt a movie mind-set. Remember the last time you became so engrossed in a movie you lost track of time? Now imagine approaching your next conversation with the same level of interest and sense of adventure. Rebecca Shafir, author of The Zen of Listening (Quest, 2003), suggests that good listeners are able to get into the speaker's conversation as if they are "living it with them."
Try this: Next time you're listening to a friend talk about her vacation, turn off your cellphone and really "experience" the situation being described.
Tip: You'll know you've been successful when you can easily repeat the details to someone else and have her feel like she was there, too.
3. Respond with respect. Since conversations are dynamic by nature -- you say one thing, then I say another -- it's often hard for us to just listen without adding our two cents. But interrupting is a sign that we are not really tuned in to what is being said, says Berlasso. How we respond to a speaker says a lot about us as listeners.
Try this: Make eye contact and use welcoming body language, such as leaning in to the speaker. It shows that you are interested in the conversation.
Providing appropriate and supportive acknowledgment also makes people feel heard, says Marjorie Shore, a trainer and coach who teaches communication workshops at The Coaching Clinic in Toronto. She suggests three ways that we can do this. Use encouraging words such as aha and hmm, as well as open-ended questions, such as "What else happened?" Paraphrasing, or repeating back what you've heard, is another excellent technique. An example might be: "I'm hearing that your boss is really giving you a hard time," or, "It sounds like you're feeling trapped in your relationship."
Tip: Sometimes telling a story with a similar emotional theme helps the listener see that you understand her at her level. This is about relaying an experience when you felt as she does now without telling her how to solve her problem.
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4. Have the right intentions. Whether we're aware of it or not, most of us have a personal agenda when it comes to conversations. (I generally like to convince people I'm right!) "When we are talking with others we often want something from them," says Shore, who believes that we need to shift from "what's in it for me" to being genuinely curious about what the other person has to say.
Try this: Shore says to ask yourself, What is the purpose of each conversation I enter into? Make sure it's one you feel good about. "For instance, if the purpose is to show someone you're better than they are then you shouldn't even have the conversation," she adds. "Or if your intention is to change a friend or her spouse's behaviour, instead simply try to understand their perspective and what's behind their actions."
Tip: The next time you're about to pick up the phone and call your best friend, think about what you hope to achieve. Would you like her to feel listened to and supported? Or do you want to show you're interested in what's going on her life? And if you want to be the one listened to, then come right out and say so. Tell her that you could really use a shoulder to cry on, and make it clear that you're not looking for advice.
5. Put the conversation on hold.
It's OK to delay if you don't have the time or energy to be a good listener, such as when your mom calls to talk about the latest family event while you're making dinner, or a coworker shows up at your office door to discuss a problem and you've got a deadline to meet.
Tip: Shore says to tell your family member or coworker that you'd really like to be able to give him your undivided attention and agree to reconnect at a more suitable time.
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