5 Tiny Listening Skills That'll Make Every Conversation More Valuable

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Woman having a conversation

The skills of communication and listening may seem obvious, ordinary, or boring. Yet using the basic process of listening helps you connect well with others professionally and personally. In all situations, listening helps boost trust and understanding. It promotes learning and opportunities. A foundation for intimacy and closeness, listening can also strengthen most relationships. As passive and simple as it may seem, listening is a powerful skill that benefits from your self-awareness and practice. 

Awareness of how listening occurs will help you master it. According to the International Listening Association, individuals typically think and listen at very different speeds. Individuals listen at 125-300 words per minute and think at 1,000-3,000 words per minute. That leaves plenty of time for distraction and for giving into the now 8 seconds of a typical attention span that compares to recent research on goldfish! The active listening skills suggested below will help you transcend any painfully short attention spans and build deeper, more meaningful relationships.

So how can you be a more effective listener and sharpen your communication skills? Your first step is simple. Before you start a conversation, consider what you want to accomplish formally or informally, the interests and needs of the other person, and their point of view. Whether you know the person or not, ask yourself if you have any stereotypes or assumptions that might sneak into the way you communicate with them. What about expectations? Once you've set your intention and gotten clear about what you want to accomplish, experiment with psychologist Allen Ivey's 5-step process.

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Here are 5 tiny listening skills to make every conversation more valuable:

1. Send accurate verbal and nonverbal signals to show you're engaged.

Showing the person you're talking with that you're actively engaged in the conversation starts with a practice called attending behavior. There are both verbal and nonverbal aspects to attending behavior. Of course, you already know that what you say plays a substantial role in communication. Here are several ways to verbally show attending behavior. 



  • Make sure your responses closely relate to what the other person is saying. This shows that you are willing to stay on the speaker's path and are truly listening. On the other hand, abruptly changing topics without paraphrasing key points shifts the focus to yourself and away from effective listening. A typical example of this occurs when someone says, "That reminds me of when I..." 
  • Short, encouraging comments such as "Uh-huh," "I see," and "I understand," stimulate the other party to continue. If done sincerely, these cues let the person know you want to hear more.
  • The tone of voice is crucial for engagement; it expresses interest, energy, confidence, and emotion. 
  • Use silence of up to five seconds to encourage the speaker to talk and collect their thoughts. Much longer, though, and the silence might create discomfort or seem intimidating.

Nonverbal cues, such as body language and eye contact, are crucial for effective attending behavior. Experts estimate that anywhere between 60-90 percent of communication occurs that way. In any event, body language often tells more than even carefully chosen words. To use attending behavior effectively:

  • Be aware of the messages you’re sending. For example, looking attentively at someone usually indicates interest. But if your gaze lacks warmth, is hard, focused elsewhere, or glazed over, you might seem mean-spirited or bored.
  • Note the expressions, if any, that tend to play over your face in conversation. Impassivity may imply that you are unengaged, whereas a soft smile and warm eyes can show your appreciation and encourage their confidence in continuing.
  • Take note of your "telling" habits, such as nervous hand movements, crossed arms, or foot tapping.

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2. Ask effective questions.

Open-ended questions starting with “what” and “how” versus ones that lead to "yes/no" responses keep communication moving. They can create new areas for discussion, pinpoint issues, focus attention, and clarify thinking for all participants. However, starting a question with “why” sometimes puts people on the defensive. Other examples are leading, loaded, and rapidly-fired series of questions.



3. Use paraphrasing to confirm interest and understanding.

Paraphrasing provides a brief summary of what's been said so far. It organizes the content of the conversation and clarifies mutual understanding. Paraphrasing can also prove you're on the same page. As a highly effective means of showing engagement, it will help you retain the information better, too! For example, after hearing a tale about your friend's flat tire, you might respond to her with the following paraphrase: "Wow, that sounds really frustrating to get a flat tire and be stuck on the side of the highway for two hours waiting for a tow truck. I'm so glad AAA eventually came to get it fixed!"Use paraphrasing as a control as well. It can close off an area of discussion, create a bridge to a new topic, and help participants focus. A reality check ensures understanding is shared.

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4. Identify emotions connected with the content of your conversation.

To make your attending behavior, questions, and paraphrasing even more effective, tune in to the emotions of the other person. While paraphrasing captures the themes of the conversation in words, reflection of emotions heeds the less intellectual side of communication. It relies largely on the listener's capacity to name and appreciate emotions, as well as to be empathetic.

In the example above, your friend seemed irritated about her flat tire and exasperated that she had to wait so long for a tow truck. Acknowledging her emotions by saying her experience "sounds really frustrating" clearly signals that you were listening, not just to the details of the experience, but how she felt. That may better signal empathy. To practice, label the emotions you observe as specifically as possible using language such as, "That sounds as though ____" or "What a ____ experience!" Do this by referring to actual words used by the speaker or noting nonverbal cues to avoid projection or putting your personal spin on someone else’s emotions. 

In addition to naming specific emotions, be alert to mixed or ambivalent messages. These double messages are often expressed in conflicts between body language or tone of voice and words. For example, you may say, "You said you want to _____, yet I don't hear much enthusiasm in your voice." However you proceed, be as tentative and respectful in your approach as you would like someone to be with you. Always give the other person an opportunity to correct your perceptions.

5. End with a great closing summary.

This finale for effective listening synthesizes all the main points related to content or themes and emotions. Essentially, your summarizing is a more full and extended paraphrase. Accuracy is crucial here. This skill encourages agreement on what occurred and outlines what actions will follow. Done well,  ummarization leads to a well-focused outcome that benefits everyone. By listening effectively, you demonstrate respect for the other person and engage in a mutually beneficial process.

Your listening is a great, intangible gift to give to others and to yourself. But it takes time, attention, and consistency to excel — especially at first or if you tend initially to be controlling or impatient with the process. Once you improve and apply your listening skills, you’ll open windows and doors to new possibilities and richer relationships in most areas of your life.

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Ruth Schimel Ph.D. is a career and life management consultant and author of the Choose Courage series. She guides clients in accessing their strengths and making viable visions for current and future work and life situations.