Nearly everybody wants to be a better listener — to co-workers, family, and friends. It’s a skill that life demands of us, but it’s not always easy. Some people are actually master listeners (that is, people who not only are good at retaining information they hear, but are active and engaged in their listening), like bartenders, taxi drivers, or physicians. By dint of their professions, they find themselves interacting with and listening to people often.
Joe-Annis Iodice, 70, a Lyft driver in Fernandina Beach, FL, knows that when a passenger wants to engage, it is part of her job to listen. Some riders prefer silence, but many of the people she picks up can “sense” that she’s a good listener as soon as they slide into her backseat. One time, Iodice picked up a passenger who was grieving his divorce, and he clearly needed time to talk about it. She pulled into a parking lot. “When he was all done, he just looked at me and said, ‘Wow. I haven’t said any of those things out loud in years,’” she recalls.
Many people in the service industry are particularly good listeners. In some cases, having a sense of intuition, and being able to read people well, is almost a prerequisite for success in these roles. Sarah Franco, 50, a yoga teacher from Brooklyn, NY, considers her position to be somewhat similar to a career in mental health services. “People are coming for something. It’s a giving field. If you really want to be in service of something outside of yourself, it’s important to hear and listen to what’s going on for other people,” she says.
Even if you don’t work in the service industry, we can all benefit from improving our listening skills. Here are some tips for you to build that muscle.
Learn the difference between being still and being quiet
“One key to listening is to be able to be still, not quiet. There’s a huge difference,” Iodice says. “Being quiet means you could be waiting for the other person to stop speaking so you can say what it is what you want to say. But being still is being able to really absorb what the other person is saying.” Stillness, by her definition, provides you with the mental clarity to give a thoughtful response, when and if it becomes appropriate. You can practice stillness on your own, so you’re better at it when you’re with other people. You might consider going for a walk with no headphones. When you make time to practice stillness, Iodice says, “Your mind is focused on what’s happening right then.”
Use nonverbal cues
“When you’re ready to react, take a deep breath, pause, and just be okay with the silence. It’s okay to think before you speak, or maybe not even speak so that you can process and fully listen,” Franco, who practiced social work before becoming a yoga teacher, says. Responding is one way to be an active listener, but there are other powerful nonverbal cues that can let someone know you hear them. Genuine eye contact, facing the person, and showing compassion and curiosity for what they are trying to say are all apt examples of nonverbal listening. As a taxi driver, Iodice has to be comfortable with nonverbal cues, since her primary focus is, of course, on the road ahead of her. “As a driver, I can’t turn around and look at them, but I will subtly nod my head, or I’ll say things like, ‘I hear you,’ or I’ll resonate with something that they said, like, ‘That must have been difficult,’” she says.
“Being a good listener means that we make a person feel at ease right from the beginning of the encounter, so that they will do all the talking,” Mary Gail Kwiecinski, 58, a doctor of podiatric medicine from Libertyville, IL, says. “Simple steps that I take when I first meet a patient is to shake hands, create eye contact, and smile. I want them to know that they are the only one who has my full attention at that moment.” In order to truly show that, you’ll also need to put your phone away, she notes. Kwiecinski’s anecdotal observation is supported by research: A 2012 study shows that having your phone out, even if you’re not using it, stifles interpersonal reaction, and can hinder your ability to listen.
Separate yourself from the equation
There are certainly times when listening can feel burdensome, or outright annoying. And in such moments, it’s helpful to remember why you’re listening in the first place: Perhaps it’s part of your job, or you’re trying to be a good friend to someone you care about. Take a second to identify your feelings, whether it’s exhaustion, frustration, or boredom. Then, as Franco recommends, ask yourself: “Can I take a pause on that feeling and be there for the other person?” Active listening can sometimes require an element of selflessness.
Remember small details
As a bartender in New York City, Tess Jonas, 26, naturally listens to and remembers certain guests’ orders. There’s one patron, she says, who has dined alone at the bar a few times during dinner rush hour, orders a Coca-Cola, a filet, some fries, and a side of tomatoes.
“Are you sure you don’t want the Campari tomatoes too?” she asked him the one time his order was different. He was so touched by this gesture that he texted his wife, “The bartender remembers me.” You can practice this attention to detail even if you don’t work in the service industry (where it’s often, of course, a part of the job). Next time you’re talking with a friend, listen for what’s coming up in their week, or if they’re particularly stressed about an event. Then, later on, follow up with them to see how it went. This gesture takes little time, but will have a big impact. As Jonas says of her interaction with the diner, “It was just a nice thing. For both of us.”
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