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How to Improve Listening & Conversation Skills

Did you know that around 85% of the problems that you experience in life involve other people? And that the inability to get along with others is the most common reason why people lose their job?

Your ability to get along with other people is therefore the single largest determinate of the success that you will experience in life. So if you want to make something of yourself, developing good people skills should be one of your top priorities.

In this article, we are going to be looking at how you can do this by improving your listening skills.

Since most people don’t really listen to what those around them are saying, if you can learn to do this, you will automatically give yourself a major advantage when interacting with others.

How to Improve Basic Conversation Skills

How do you know when you have turned into a good listener? Simple. People will enjoy having a conversation with you and will talk to you more often as a result! So let’s get started on the road to becoming a better listener by covering some of the basic listening skills that you should know about.

Look Them in the Face

When you look at another person in the face, your body language communicates that you are interested in what they’re saying and that they have your full attention.

woman on laptop

Looking at another person signals that you are receptive to their message.

If, however, you start looking to the side, looking around the room or looking down at the floor, you send a very different message. By avoiding eye contact, you signal to the speaker disinterest, lack of confidence and the suggestion that you may have something to hide.

When looking into the speaker’s eyes, don’t just stare at them blankly, as this can also signal disinterest. Rather, try to animate your face as they are speaking by smiling, nodding or shaking your head when appropriate.

This will make you a more interesting and enjoyable person to talk to, because by showing interest in the speaker, their self-esteem and confidence will be boosted thereby making them feel good when they are conversing with you.

If you have trouble looking someone in the eyes, focus your gaze in the space between the eyes in the region that lies just above the bridge of the nose.

This will make it appear as if you are looking directly into their eyes, and will result in you feeling less self-conscious if you find it difficult to maintain eye contact.

Listen Without Interrupting

If you constantly interrupt another person, they will soon find it very frustrating and will  quickly dislike having conversations with you.

interrupting speech

Wait until a person has finished speaking before you reply.

Interrupting another person is also another sign of disinterest, as by not giving another person a chance to have their say, you are essentially telling them that you don’t really care about what they’re saying because what you have to say is more important.

If you have trouble interrupting people, practice the three-second rule. When the speaker has finished a sentence, or when you think they have finished, mentally count to three. If they haven’t said anything else, then go ahead and start talking.

The three-second rule will help you to avoid the most common cause of interruptions, speaking when another person pauses in mid sentence.

In order to develop good communication skills, you need to listen out for and identify the pauses when you shouldn’t speak, and those which signal when you can speak.

Pause Before Replying

Just like how you can use pauses to avoid inappropriate interruptions, so can you use pauses to produce more thoughtful and relevent responses.

pause

Pauses not only make you a better listener, but can also help to make you a better communicator.

When you pause after the other person has finished speaking, you signal to them that you are deeply considering what they have said. In other words, you are showing them that what they are saying is important to you.

Secondly, by pausing before replying, you also give yourself a few moments for their words to sink in. This allows you to think about what you are going to say, rather than just quickly spouting off the first thing that comes to mind.

As a result, you are more likely to say something which is relevant, considerate and interesting, rather than something which is inappropriate, offensive or boring.

As an added bonus, using pauses can help to slow down a conversation so that you are both able to catch your breath. This in turn, will make you both feel at ease when talking with each other, as you won’t have to worry about struggling to have your say.

Match the Tempo

Some people talk really fast, whilst others prefer to talk slowly. Fast talkers and slow talkers don’t mix!

drummers

The most effective way to communicate is to match the tempo of your speech to that of your listener.

Fast talkers can find it frustrating talking to slow talkers, because they quickly become impatient waiting for the other person to finish. When this occurs, they will usually try to finish the other person’s sentence for them so that they can  speed up the conversation.

Slow talkers can find it difficult talking to fast talkers because they struggle to keep up with what’s been said. This may result in them missing key points and then having to ask the speaker to repeat themselves. Ultimately, this can lead to both parties becoming frustrated with each other.

By matching the tempo of the person whom you are speaking with however, you can help to avoid these kinds of uncomfortable conversations. For fast talkers, talk quickly with them. For slow talkers, talk slowly with them.

The closer you can match a speaker’s tempo, the more effectively your communication will be.

Repeat it Back

repetition

Repetition makes it clear that you understand whats been said and are listening to it.

By repeating what the other person has just said, but in your own words, you will give the impression that you clearly understand them. This will give the speaker confidence in you, especially if they have asked you to do something.

This is known as reflective listening, and is something that we shall explore in greater depth later on in this article.

Question for Clarification

In a conversation, the person who asks the questions has control. You should therefore make sure that the type of questions you ask are appropriate for the responses you want.

man thinking

Questions allow you to control the direction and content of a conversation.

For example, if you are trying to find out more information about something, you should ask questions that will require more than a one word to answer. These are known as open-ended questions, and usually begin with “what“, “where“, “why“, “how” and “when“.

If you are trying to get a definite answer, such as getting a person to commit to something, then you should ask closed-ended questions that can only be answered with one word, such as “yes” or “no“. Does that make sense? (closed question).

Be careful though not to bombard a person with questions though, as otherwise your conversation will seem more like an interview or an interrogation. To avoid this from happening, ask a person two or three questions and then give your opinion as part of your response to their questions/comments.

This will make them feel that you are interested in learning what they think, and make you a more interesting conversationalist by sharing your own thoughts and opinions.

Don’t Argue

Arguments begin when two people have different points of view, and it’s one of the quickest ways to make someone dislike you. So if you know what the other person has said is wrong, avoid the temptation to argue and prove that you are right.

men arguing

People who argue are usually more interested in trying to prove that they’re right rather than really listening to whats been said.

Even if the other person admits that you are right, they will secretly resent you for it. So unless it’s really important, it’s better just to let it go rather than risk creating conflict.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree with someone, as disagreements can help to make conversations more interesting and exciting.

But if you are constantly trying to prove how much you know and how little the other person knows, you will quickly find yourself alienated by other people because nobody likes a smart ass.

Another reason to avoid getting into arguments, is because when people argue they tend not to listen to each other. As a result, even though a lot can be said, arguments very rarely lead to constructive conversations.

Listen to the Content

Everyone you meet will have certain things which they are interested in. Some people like sports, some like entertainment and some like educational topics.

tin can to ear

Listen closely to your target to find out what they are interested in talking about.

As you are speaking to a person, listen carefully and ask questions to gain clues as to where their interests lie.

This is important because if you talk with someone about something which they have little or no interest in, then they will find both you and the conversation very boring and so won’t really listen to what you’re saying.

You will know when you hit upon a subject of interest as there will be an immediate and noticeable change in them. They may start to talk faster, become more emotional and will overall seem more involved and engrossed in the conversation you are having.

Reflective (Active) Listening

Reflective listening, also called active listening or empathetic listening, is a skill that involves listening to the words a person says in addition to the things they don’t say.

This allows you to grasp the full content of a message without becoming distracted by emotionally laden words, thereby allowing for more effective and appropriate communication to occur.

dog ears listening

Active listening allows you to hear what a person is really saying.

For example, if a person shouts at you and tells you they hate you, but their body language suggests otherwise, you can take what they have said with a pinch of salt because you know how they really feel.

Reflective listening is therefore a very important skill to develop, because once you improve your ability to hear what a person is really saying, you will then be much better able to express yourself in a way that the other person will understand and will want to listen to.

Below we will look at some of the ways that reflective listening can be used to enhance the quality of conversation that you have with others.

Reflecting Speech

man talking

Giving a quick summary of what a person has just said shows that you were listening to them.

One of the best ways to show someone that you’ve listened to and understood them, is to reflect or paraphrase the content of their speech back to them.

This reflection should be simple and easily understood, cutting through the waffle and highlighting the key points. Be careful not to reflect for too long, or too often, however, as you may irritate the speaker or cause them to lose their train of thought.

This is an important point to remember, because using reflective listening does not mean simply parroting back to the person what they have just said. Rather, it means adding to and assisting the overall flow of the conversation.

parrot

Don’t repeat everything back word for word as otherwise you will sound like a parrot.

Some example phrases of reflective sentence stems are:

  • So, it sounds like…
  • In other words…
  • It looks like…
  • So what you’re saying…
  • You mean…
  • It seems that…
  • I feel as though…

Note how some of these sentence stems use different sensory modalities by using visual, auditory or kinesthetic (feeling) words.

This is a common practice that can be found with many neuro linguistic programming (NLP) techniques, as it is believed that we each have a dominant sensory modality in which we communicate best with.

So if you hear someone using very vivid and descriptive words for example, then you may be able to enhance your communication with them by using visual reflections, such as “I see what you mean“, rather than auditory reflections, such as “I hear you loud and clear“.

human senses

People can communicate in a way that emphasizes different senses.

When using reflections, try to incorporate a sense of uncertainty in your voice as you paraphrase back to the speaker what they have just said.

If this is done correctly, with a slight upward inflection (i.e., higher pitch), it will signal to the speaker a need for further clarification as though you were asking a question.

This will encourage the speaker to continue talking, whilst at the same time making them feel as if you are listening to them and are very interested in what they have said.

Furthermore, this technique can also be very beneficial in helping to create rapport, as it will make a person feel important because someone is devoting their full attention to them.

These positive feelings will soon become associated with you, which will then improve the quality of the relationship that you have with them.

Summarizing

A summary serves to refocus attention on a particular issue. This can be useful when your conversation has wandered too far from the main topic and you want to get it back on track.

pile of envelopes

A summary is a quick overview of a lot of information.

Summarizing allows you to do this quickly and easily without offending your speaking partner, and it also gives you control over the direction of your conversation in a non-domineering way.

In order for a summary to be effective, it must be relatively brief and well-balanced to cover all viewpoints. If someone thinks that your summary is inaccurate or biased, for example, then this may lead to disagreements or even an argument about the points being made.

This of course, is something that you definitely want to avoid, as disagreements and arguments will both quickly break rapport and make it much more difficult for you to communicate effectively.

The best times to use summaries during a conversation are:

  • Whenever emotion and argument are clouding the issue.
  • When your views are not being properly recognized, appreciated or understood.
  • Whenever you feel it is time to conclude a conversation/agreement.
  • After reaching an agreement to make sure that your understanding of what has been agreed to is exactly the same as the other person’s understanding.

Acknowledging Feelings

Reflective listening involves not only reflecting words, but also, reflecting feelings. This is most applicable when someone talks to you in an emotional way, such as when they are upset, happy, sad or angry.

Generally, when people display such emotions publicly, there is a subconscious desire for those emotions to be recognized and acknowledged by others around them.

different feelings

When a person displays an emotion in public there is a subconscious need for it to be recognized and acknowledged.

So by reflecting those feelings back to them, for example, by saying “You look happy today” or “It seems that really upset you“, you are acknowledging their feelings and telling them that you understand those feelings.

As a result, you increase the depth of the communication which you are able to have with them, thereby allowing you to communicate more effectively.

The ability to recognize the feeling of others is referred to as one’s level of “emotional intelligence” and this is something that all good speakers have mastered how to do well.

Mirroring Moods

Reflecting moods (i.e., being happy when someone else is happy) tends to be very effective when dealing with emotional extremes. This is because during emotional outbursts, the reflection of that emotional state tends to enhance the intensity of it.

For example, reflecting a positive mood to someone who is already in a good mood, will most likely make them feel even better. On the other hand, reflecting a negative mood to a person who is feeling depressed, will most likely make them feel worse.

sad woman

Your mood can affect the mood of others, and vice versa.

So it’s important to note that the reflection of moods must be done only when it’s appropriate to do so, as when someone is in a negative mood, a straight reflection is likely to be both inappropriate and counterproductive.

In such a case, an opposite strategy is necessary by conveying a good mood in order to lift a bad mood. This is known as “leading”, because you are using your emotional state to lead the direction of another person’s emotional state.

So as a general rule, just remember to always display in yourself the mood that you want your listener to experience.

Summary

Below is listed a summary of the main benefits that can come from using reflective listening in your interactions with others.

  • Encourages the other person to keep talking.
  • Corrects misunderstandings, false assumptions and misinterpretations.
  • Reassures the speaker that you are listening.
  • Gives you a much deeper insight into the needs of a person.
  • Helps you to remember what was said.
  • Builds rapport and mutual respect.
  • Shows that you have good listening skills.
  • Shows that you have good communication skills.

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