How to be a better listener

Have you ever had a conversation where you can tell the other person is not listening to a thing you say? It’s like they are just waiting for you to finish speaking so they can start talking. It’s frustrating. And to be honest, it’s something we’ve all been guilty of at one time or another.

Conversation is an art form. A delicate dance where each partner moves from speaking to listening, exchanging information and ideas.

For most people, the fun part is when it’s their turn to talk. Listening to someone else’s ideas and concerns are not quite as exciting. It takes work to listen. And the truth is, we can all be better listeners.

Dr. Margarete Imhof of Johannes Gutenberg-University suggests three cognitive strategies to listen more efficiently: interest management, asking pre-questions, and elaboration techniques.

Interest Management
People are more apt to listen if they are interested in the subject. This is a pretty obvious observation, but true nonetheless. The speaker can’t force a listener’s interest in a topic, but as listeners, we can work-up our curiosity about what is being said.

How do we generate interest in something we don’t usually find fascinating? Like we’ve mentioned in previous posts, people can tell when we are being fake. So how do we balance the fine line of genuine investment and pretend engrossment?

The trick is to empathize with people. When you love someone, you tend to find everything they say much more interesting. When we genuinely care about someone, we can drum up more enthusiasm for what they find important. Because I care about you, I choose to care about what you have to say.

I once worked with a lady who told a lot of stories about her pet cat. I personally do not like cats. In fact, due to a traumatic incident as a child at Diana H.’s house during a sleepover, I may say I heartily dislike cats. I have particular enmity against, striped orange and white, green-eyed, monsters named “Tigger” who step on your carefully braided hair at two in the morning, spend the rest of the night staring at you while you try to sleep and then howl and pretend as if you hurt them when Diana wakes up.

When my coworker told stories of her cat, I was tempted to glaze over and think about the million and one tasks I had to do that day. But because I cared about my coworker and was interested in her life, I found those stories of her little kitty a little more bearable.

I still don’t like cats (you can blame Diana’s precious little Tigger for that!), but I didn’t mind hearing about my coworker’s cat. When I knew a cat story was coming, I worked-up an enthusiasm. I would tell myself, “I care about my coworker, so I care about my coworker’s cats.” My interest level helped me to listen better to her and give genuine reactions that showed I was paying attention.

Asking Pre-Questions
What does it mean to ask pre-questions? It means when possible, we go into a conversation actively looking for ways to understand what information is being delivered. Pre-questions define the expectation of a listener. They help us decide what information we receive is actually beneficial to us.

How do pre-questions impact us in our day to day conversations?

I once had a boss who would start every meeting by saying, “Now, why are we meeting today?” It didn’t matter if the topic was on all of our calendars or if we had just been called into a department-wide touch-base, every single meeting would begin with that same question.

By asking why we were meeting, it kept our focus on what mattered. Our conversations had greater significance, and we all knew what questions to ask to define our goals further. We listened more intently to what was being said because we had a singular focus.

At the beginning of conversations, we should be asking ourselves a few questions to help us better receive and retain the information being shared.

Elaboration Techniques
Elaboration techniques are merely mental activities that force us to look at information from different angles. When we receive information, we balance it against prior knowledge, past experiences, personal biases, and many other factors. When we engage in elaboration techniques, we are using all of those components to stimulate inferences and make correlations. We can then process information at a deeper level.

Active listeners not only obtain the information being shared, they simultaneously connect that information to their past experiences and knowledge. For example, when I hear a lecture on atoms, I may not wholly understand the shape and composition of an atom. But when the professor tells me that it is made up of electrons which orbit around the atom’s nucleus where protons and neutrons are found, I can envision what I know of planets orbiting, to create a visual idea and connect the two concepts.

Elaboration techniques take what is being said and connect it to or test it against our past experiences and knowledge to further our understanding. But we have to be careful not to bring our biases into a conversation. It’s effortless to allow elaboration techniques to do the opposite of what we intend. Sometimes, instead of helping us be better listeners, our past experiences and knowledge can serve to keep us from hearing what is being said. We must be mindful when using elaboration techniques that we are not just hearing what we want to hear.


Listening is hard work. It takes effort. It takes a genuine interest in others and what they have to say. Actively listening to others requires us to put our selfish tendencies on hold while we focus on the speaker. We won’t always get it right, but making an effort to be a better listener will definitely gain positive attention from those who are speaking. Active listeners are much better at connecting with others and forge deep relationships more easily. If you want to connect with someone, work at being a more effective listener.

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