How to: Listen better

How to: Listen better

Do you usually space out, think about what you’re going to say when it’s “your turn” to speak, or even interrupt those you talk to?

It’s as common as the common cold. From we’re small children we’re taught to speak, but nobody ever teaches us to listen.

Wait a minute, in school they taught us to listen!… But did they teach us how to listen? Or did they sit us down on a chair and teach us how to be quiet while the only thing we could (passively) listen to was the teacher standing in front of the black board.

This is why most people don’t know how to listen properly: we believe it’s enough to be quiet while the other person is talking.

But that’s not listening. That’s queuing. Waiting for your turn to speak.

If you want to truly listen (and those closest to you deserve to be heard, do they not?) then prepare to be as active as when you talk.


Active listening

It may sound weird to listen actively, since we usually think of listening as something passive, something that just “happens” to us. Like seeing, or using any of our other senses. If our eyes are open we see, if our eyes aren’t blocked, we hear.

But if we go one level deeper and analyse what happens when we use our senses, we see that there is actually a big difference between when we use them actively or passively.

What happens when you open your eyes? You see everything in front of you, correct. But what happens if you now focus on something small a few meters ahead of you? Your focus changes and everything that isn’t the object of your focus becomes blurry. You don’t notice it because your used to it, bit if you try now you’ll see it’s true.

The same thing goes for listening. If someone’s talking within your proximity the sound waves from their throat will reach your ears, and you will hear it. But if you actively focus on their voice and what they’re saying you will hear, remember and notice a lot more than when you we’re being passive.

Just like when you eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. If you’re being passive, you just hear noise and voices, but once something (an interesting word  for example) triggers your interest you avert your attention and focus to the conversation and the noise turns into words and meaning.


Meaning over words

Another aspect of being an active listener is to not only listen to the words of the other person, but listen to the meaning they try to convey. Because essentially that’s all talking is: an attempt to convey meaning.

Especially in Western society, through history, the word (written and spoken) itself has been put on a pedestal, and emotion, context and the unspoken has been neglected.

This means we sometimes find ourselves baffled by other people’s reactions when we think we did exactly what they asked us to because we listened to the words that left their mouth, when in fact the meaning was different.

Unless you’re a champion wordsmith, rhetoric, and know the dictionary from A-Z and back again, it’s difficult to master any language well enough to put exactly what you feel or want into words.

A lot of meaning is lost as context to what we think we say, and those we talk to rarely pick up on it.

So, use all your senses when you listen, because words themselves are not adequate to truly communicate what we mean or feel.

Look at your conversation partner’s body language, listen to their tone of voice. Are they smiling when they’re speaking or are they closing up, crossing their arms in front their chest. Are they speaking fast and with a lot of energy or are they slow and intense.

This lets you know the context and what meaning they’re trying to convey.

There’s a big difference between “It’s OK” when it’s coming from someone who looks down, with their arms crossed in front of them, in a low voice, or someone who smiles at you, chest open, arms to the side, and high energy.


In essence: we don’t listen with just our ears, we listen with our whole body.


It’s not important what you say

When it comes time to listen, ironically, a lot of us think about what we should say next, instead of focusing on what our conversation partner is saying.

It doesn’t take much insight to see it’s a bad tactic to focus on ourselves when we want to focus on the person who’s speaking.

We want to seem as interesting and insightful listeners so we think of thoughtful answers, but in our quest to be perceived as great listeners we forget the most important thing: to actually listen.

I used to do this a lot. But when I stopped and listened I found that those “thoughtful” answers weren’t better than those I came up with when there was pause in the conversation where I could ask a question or give a statement. It’s nice for us to show how clever or thoughtful we are by giving great answers or insights but it doesn’t necessarily help the speaker.

In truth: people don’t want someone to listen to them because they want to be blown back by the witty response of the century. They want to talk and they want the listener to confirm that they are valuable and interesting enough to be listened to.

Listening is a precious gift, and in a world where everyone demands to speak, not many are heard.

It’s the easiest gift to give, but it can mean a world of difference. So, stand out – give people that gift.


All the best, you’re the best. Rasmus, EZ-Philosophy.


2 Replies to “How to: Listen better”

  1. Excellent advice! My husband has cancer and one of the most hurtful things people do is to open their mouth and give their opinions about what he should be doing, without ever asking (and then listening to) how he is doing.

    1. Thanks, Heather! I’m sorry to hear that. Sadly we’re taught to talk from a very early age, while no one ever gave us good grades for listening. Hopefully, together, we can change this for those around us and your acquaintances will start to become more aware of your needs. I wish you all the best!

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