Strategies for Effective Listening

We take it for granted that we all know how to listen, that listening is a natural skill requiring no work at all. The truth is, listening is a difficult task and very few people know how to do it well. Have you ever been in the midst of a conversation with someone, nodding your head in agreement, and suddenly found yourself unable to respond to a question they’ve just asked? While you may have technically heard him, you weren’t listening to him. How about when someone tells you his name and within moments you have forgotten it?

Why is listening so difficult? One reason is that students and adults confuse hearing with listening. Hearing is passive; it means some sound has reverberated in your ear, whether or not you wanted it to, and there’s been a noise. Listening, on the other hand, is an active process. It implies that you must do something to accomplish it. It takes action and, often, work to listen well.

For example, let’s say you are sitting on a crowded train talking with a friend. You hear the noise of the train, the chatter of passengers around you, the iPod echoes blasted by a kid next to you and, somewhere in all that, you even hear your friend. But to understand what your friend is telling you, you need to do something; you need to listen to distinguish her words from all the background noise.

The same principle applies to classroom lectures. There may not be the same amount of noise in a lecture room as on a crowded train (although there is plenty of distracting racket, from feet shuffling to coughing to heaters or air conditioners blowing), but you still have to work hard to listen to the professor’s words.

The following strategies will help you learn effective listening. They can help with your note-taking as well as with any interpersonal encounters, from conversations to job interviews. Develop good listening skills now and they’ll last a lifetime and continue to bring you success. People respect someone who listens carefully. More importantly, those who listen are certain to catch important information that others don’t.

Make the Effort

The first step to effective listening is to realize that listening takes effort. It won’t happen on its own and it’s not something that is going to take place automatically, just by your being there. Go into situations where it’s important for you to listen. Be determined to listen, and listen carefully. Concentrate. It may be difficult at first, but in time you’ll get better.

Pay Attention to the Speaker

It is difficult to listen to someone if you are not giving all your attention to that person. Ideally, you should look at the speaker’s face the entire time she is talking. In a lecture, though, this is not always possible, because you also need to look up and down at your notes from time to time. Try, if you can, to write while keeping your eye on the professor. Your notes may look messier but, in time, you’ll get more adept at writing without looking at the page. If you can’t write and look at the professor at the same time, make certain to look up from your notes frequently. This will ensure that you are maintaining a direct line of communication with her.

If the professor is explaining a difficult concept, you are much better off not writing and simply looking her. This way, you can actively concentrate on listening and understanding. After the professor is finished, jot down a few notes or phrases to help you remember what was said.

Minimize Distractions

To maintain that direct line of communication between you and the speaker, it’s important to minimize all outside distractions. Different things can be distracting. Perhaps there’s someone very attractive who you always sit near in class and who occupies more of your attention than the professor. Maybe a friend you sit with can’t resist chatting during the lecture. Even something as tame as chewing gum or a grumbling stomach can begin to sound like a major earthquake when you are trying to pay attention to something else. Select your seat carefully and come to class well-fed and prepared to listen.

Sit Properly

Additionally, the way you sit can also affect your ability to pay attention. If you slouch in the chair, your eyes won’t be focused on the speaker. Each time you want to look at the teacher, you will have to lift up your entire head, and the effort needed to do that can disrupt your note-taking. Instead, it is much more effective to sit straight up with your back against the chair or seat back. Place the paper in the center of the desk or table and hold it in place with whichever hand you do not use to write. If you sit in this position, you should be able to watch the professor while writing; you also will be able to glance down at your notes by just moving your eyes, not your entire head.

Watch for Lapses

Become more attuned to the times when your mind is drifting to other subjects or your eyes are wandering out the window. When this happens, take a deep breath, open your mouth to breathe, and focus your attention back on the speaker immediately. Try stretching discreetly, or open your mouth to breathe instead of breathing through your nose. Or, sip some water from a water bottle to wake you up a little bit.

Be aware that everyone is prone to lapses in attention, and that if you can recognize when your mind wanders, you will begin to correct yourself much faster and not miss as much.

Work at It

Listening, like any skill, improves as you work at it. As you try to concentrate in different situations, you’ll find you get better and better at it. Practice always helps.

Watch for Clues from the Speaker

Listening effectively means more than paying attention to the speaker’s words. People convey a great deal of information through the way they speak as well as what they say. Get in the habit of concentrating on additional signals from a speaker besides spoken words. Pay attention to the speaker’s tone of voice, the volume of their speech, pauses, hand gestures, and body language—these signals can enhance your understanding of the speaker’s words. Additionally, by being alert to these elements in addition to spoken words, you have more to occupy your attention, ensuring that you remain actively engaged in the lecture, conversation, or discussion.

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