How to Be a Better Listener and Build Stronger Relationships

Have you ever been in a conversation with your wife or a friend where what they’re saying sounds like it’s brand new and you’ve never heard it before, only to have them remind you that they told you this exact thing in the recent past? It’s frustrating, isn’t it? 

We’ve all had debates with our wives over things she swore she told us that we swore she didn’t, and we’ve all been willing to die on that hill a time or two before. Unfortunately, though, wives are pretty good at not only saying something verbally but also texting the same thing as a failsafe, so there’s almost always a text thread she can refer to to prove us wrong.

What about the times when you’re on the other end of that? What about the times when you explain something to someone – something that’s very important – only to have them ask you about that thing a month later as if you’ve never brought it up before. It’s maddening when you commit to tell someone something that they don’t seem interested enough in to commit attention to.

As it turns out, this isn’t just a frustrating phenomenon, it’s a downright unproductive one. When we decide to either not listen or to only halfway listen to what someone is saying, we’re ultimately devaluing their communication and ultimately our relationship with them.

Here’s some data to back up the importance of someone being heard. According to Forbes:

  • Highly engaged employees are three times more likely to say they feel heard at their workplace (92%) than highly disengaged employees (just 30%).
  • 74% of employees report they are more effective at their job when they feel heard.
  • 88% of employees whose companies financially outperform others in their industry feel heard compared to 62% of employees at financially underperforming companies.

Another study found today children’s brain development was increased in children who had interactive conversations where they were both being listened to and listening themselves. The study found that simply hearing someone speak to them didn’t have the same impact as them speaking themselves and being engaged by an adult who was listening.

They said:

“Instead of talking at or to your child, you really need to talk with your child to have meaningful brain development and language development.”

At the end of the day, it isn’t rocket science: we all want to be heard. Whenever we feel that someone is actively engaging in listening to what we’re saying, we feel gravitational pull towards that person. They become more likable and we enjoy being around them more. The reason is, they make us feel like we belong, and it’s all because they are simply listening.

So how can you be a better listener? Here are a few ways:

#1: Go to a singular focus.

Not all multitasking is bad. Our brains are fully capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. You can also eat and watch TV at the same time. Those types of things are fine to multitask. What isn’t OK, though, is attempting to do more than one complex task that requires active focusing and attention. For example, you cannot effectively read something on your phone and listen to someone speak at the same time. It may feel more productive, but it isn’t, and the person on the other side of your multitasking feels like you’re not listening – because you’re not.

Studies have shown over and over again that this is true: trying to do two complex, focus-demanding tasks at the same time only diminishes your effectiveness in both tasks. So why not fully commit your attention to listening?

#2: Ask questions

Oftentimes when you’re having a conversation with someone, the temptation to quit listening comes from not knowing what to say. If we feel like we don’t have anything to contribute, there’s more of a temptation to withdraw from the conversation entirely. 

One of the easiest ways to overcome this is to commit to the simple act of asking more questions. When you ask questions, it gets you involved in the conversation in a productive way without you having to be a genius on the topic the person is talking to you about. 

Not only do questions keep the conversation going, but there’s nothing like genuine questions to make someone feel like they’re heard and cared about. When you ask your wife more than just, “How was your day?“ and instead start asking about specifics in her day, the conversation will shift in a positive way. She’ll feel much more heard and appreciated when you engage deeper in the conversation through questions.

The same is true of your kids. Kids love to tell you stories, and the more questions you ask them, the more valued they feel their voice is.

So next time you’re in a conversation, I think to yourself, “What’s a good next question to ask?“ Simply putting yourself in this mindset will have you genuinely listening more as you try to go deeper into a conversation with someone. And the other person will appreciate you all the more for it.

#3: Find the takeaway

Whenever someone is speaking to you, a good practice to develop is trying to distill down what they’re saying to a key takeaway. 

This could be one key takeaway or several, but the premise is this: sift through what they’re saying to find what it is they’re actually saying. Then, when you restate it to them what you took away from what they said, not only will you gain clarity, but they will feel much more listened to and appreciated.

Most of the time, when someone stops listening, it’s because they feel overwhelmed. It typically isn’t because they don’t care; it’s because they don’t feel capable of understanding all that you’re saying, or they’ve not committed to giving the energy required to get there. 

To keep yourself from getting to the place of overwhelm where you were tempted to stop listening, simply keep a running list of key takeaways in your mind. Then, at the end of the conversation, bring it all back to the takeaways to make sure you know exactly what was said and the other person feels exactly like they were listened to.


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