One question we get frequently is, “How do I become a better listener?” Listening is an important social skill we need if we want to really connect with other people. Most people know listening is important, but a lot of us (especially those of us with a little social anxiety) end up in our heads, over-thinking things. The problem is that when we’re stuck in our heads, it’s too hard to follow along with the conversation.
This is why it can be a struggle to actually listen to other people. There are competing dialogues; the one you’re having with the other person, and the one you’re having with yourself. So here are five things you can do to have an impact on a conversation by being better at active listening.
1. Active Listening Keeps You Present
The first thing you want to do is practice active listening. That means actually following along with what’s being said and making sure you’re adding to the conversation, not just reframing questions or rephrasing things.
Try to make sure you know the direction the conversation is going. Settle in; allow yourself to be focused on the other person in that moment.
Anxiety has a tendency to turn our focus inward; when you do, it’s difficult to even hear what the other person is saying. It’s also hard to be “in the moment” and it makes it almost impossible to read body language.
Now obviously, if you have that anxiety, you’re going to have to chip away at that stone slowly. Put yourself in that position whenever you can. You’ll slowly be able to see yourself getting better at being more present in the moment.
Being present does not mean queueing up what you’re going to say next or thinking ahead to where you can take the conversation; it’s being truly engaged and allowing yourself to follow along naturally.
Stop looking for your “time to shine” or your opportunity to talk, which brings us to our second point…
2. Be Truly Interested in the Other Person
To be interesting, you must be interested. That’s the only way you’re going to be a good listener. You cannot go into a conversation looking for ways to demonstrate your value or talk about how awesome you are; you have to be interested in the other person.
For example, don’t ask someone “Hey, where have you traveled recently?” just so you can fire back with your story about your recent trip to Mexico. You want to make sure you allow the other person to share their story, not just use them as a jumping-off point for your own interests. Keep in mind everyone has a story.
You can do that by asking open-ended questions, giving the other person an opportunity to share more. So instead of asking, “Do you enjoy your work?” (which could be answered with a simple yes or no), you could ask them, “What do you enjoy most about your job?”
Open-ended questions allow the other person to elaborate and show off their personality. It lets them open up a bit. The important thing here is to practice using empathy. Allow yourself to see what it would be like to be in their shoes.
For example, if you asked why I — a coach here — love The Art of Charm, take the opportunity to think about what it would be like to be standing in front of a room full of people struggling with social anxiety. What is it like to be the person standing in the spotlight?
The easiest way to give someone value is to allow them to feel heard. When we feel like we’re being heard, we feel good.
3. Focus on the Emotions
The third thing I want you to focus on when you’re listening is the emotional undertone of the person speaking. And men, we especially struggle with this, because we get too focused on the logic and we miss out on the emotions. It’s the emotions that will allow you to connect with other people, because we all share similar emotional experiences.
One of my favorite examples of this is talking in class about a situation where I was terrified to get up and give a presentation to a group of people. There were numerous people in the class who had never given a speech, and therefore couldn’t even relate to what I was saying.
Here’s the thing though — it doesn’t matter. You can still focus on the emotion. What’s going on, how am I feeling in that situation? Terrified, unprepared, not ready to perform. So even though they couldn’t relate to my specific example, there may have been other experiences in their lives that caused them to empathize with the feelings I had. Focusing on the emotion behind people’s answers will help you relate and connect to that person.
4. Pay Attention to Nonverbal Language
This is really what the Art of Charm is all about. We know that verbal communication is only part of the equation and being a good listener is listening with your eyes and your ears. So be sure to pay attention to what emotion they’re wearing on their face, too. Are they closing themselves off, or are they really leaning in?
Those are two entirely different responses and, based on body language, they relay different messages. People will also use their vocal tonality. Do they lower their voice when telling their story? Or do their voices rise at the end of sentences, as if they’re unsure of themselves? Maybe they’re afraid to share or to show vulnerability.
Pro Tip: Most people don’t speak monotonously. Learn to listen to the peaks and valleys in different people’s tonality; it will help you understand the real point they’re trying to make.
5. Don’t Be a Standup Comedian (Unless You’re a Real Standup Comedian)
The fifth and final tip I want you to understand is that you don’t need to be a standup comedian when you’re going out and meeting people. When you show that you’re listening and involved in the conversation, it’s not about having the witty one-liners or making sure everyone know’s you’re funny — that takes away from the interaction.
Use humor sparingly, like a spice, just to break the ice and allow the connection to happen. When you’re clued into what’s going on emotionally and actively listening to and participating in what the other person is saying, you’re well on your way to building and strengthening that connection.
Pro Tip: How much better are you going to be “in the moment” when you’re not waiting to deliver a “zinger?” Suddenly the only thing you have to do is be present and listen to the other person.
I know it’s scary for some of us when we’re trying to combat anxiety and feel like silence is the enemy. We try to avoid silence at all costs; that’s why the phrase “awkward silence” exists.
In reality, silence is powerful. Taking a pause can make what you say more meaningful and create greater impact.
The thing is, we’re all good listeners with our friends. We’re not in our head, we’re not overthinking it, and we don’t feel the need to constantly come up with witty one-liners. Try to slow down mentally, enjoy the company of other people, treat them like your friends, and actively listen to what they’re saying.
Pro Tip: One of the things we love doing with our clients in Los Angeles is play improv games. These require you to actively follow along with the story to participate, which is exactly what we’re talking about when we say “practice active listening.”