September 15, 2020

Three ways to improve your listening skills

Among my friends, I’m known as a good listener. But whenever my friends said that, I often wondered what it is that I did that helped me gain that reputation. After reading several books on social skills, conversations, listening, and making yourself unforgettable, I think I finally pieced together some of the traits of good listeners.

Here is what I learned with books and resources attached to each tip:

Listen with intention

From Make yourself Unforgettable by Dale Carnegie, I realized that listening is something that you do with full attention and intention. Dale talks about how there are different levels of listening. You are probably familiar with a few of these yourself. For example, the most basic level is where you are not listening at all. You may be doing something else. You may be purposely ignoring the person. There’s another level where you are listening to someone, but not really listening to them. You nod your head. You say yes or uh huh in agreement. But you are trying to get out of the conversation as fast as possible.

If you cannot provide your full attention to listening to someone, just say so. “I’m sorry, I’m not able to give you my full attention right now”. And then tell them when you can. But if you tell someone that you are going to listen to them, do so with full attention.

Another good rule of thumb? Ask three questions for every question you ask.

Listen without knowing what to say next

From You’re not listening by Kate Murphy, we often listen, and at the same time, think about what we are trying to say next. In these types of conversations, we are listening and waiting for our turn, rather than fully paying attention to what someone is saying.

Ever since I realized the power of full attention, I tried to do this myself. I listen without knowing what I am going to say or what question I am going to ask next. And I will tell you something that I’m sure you are afraid of. Yes, there are long pauses as I try to think about what to say next. And yes, they can be awkward. But if you are fully listening to what someone has to say, then it gives them the respect and care they deserve.

You have to let go of the fact that you are going to be uncomfortable not knowing what to say in a conversation. It’s tough, but your listening skills will improve thereafter.

Ask good questions and be curious

From The Advice Trap by Michael Bungay Stanier, I realized that there is a lot of power in asking questions and then shutting up. While his book, and The Coaching Habit, also by the same author, focus on coaching and providing advice, many of the suggestions in the two books apply to conversations in general. For example:

  • Ask questions and then shut up, let the other person fill the silence
  • Providing advice is not the best way to approach conversations. Sometimes, it is about letting the other person discover the answer themselves.

There are two questions in particular that I like that I will try out in conversations: What’s on your mind? and And what else?

‘What’s on your mind?’ is a great question that helps get at the root of a conversation. You normally ask when you are coaching someone else, but it’s a good open ended question that is rooted in curiosity, and not judgment or opinion.

‘And what else?’ is another question that really helps the other person think about a topic or conversation a little deeper. Again, this is normally used to dive deeper into problems or solutions, but it can be widely applied to many conversation topics.


Looking back, I did a few of these things well. In James Altucher’s Choose Yourself, he talks about choosing a day where you only say 1,000 words in total. That means that you have to carefully choose what words you want to say and use to have the most impact. I often enter conversations trying as hard as possible to not say anything and I find that when I shut up, other people fill in the silence. I’m not always fully focused on the conversation, but when I find myself drifting, I try to bring myself back in the moment.

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