A study in Business Communications: Strategies and Skills reports that the average person retains only about 25% of what they hear. Ask yourself: How often are you truly listening when you're in a conversation? As humans, our minds are constantly absorbed by our own thoughts, and this can significantly impact how well we listen. Listening is something we've been conditioned to do our whole lives—but there are levels of it. Listening is a conscious act that we must decide to do. Listening without judgment, assumptions, and distractions is a choice.
"Our brains are designed for social interaction, and we derive some of our greatest joy and life lessons from our relationships," explains Jamie Price, wellness expert and co-founder of Stop, Breathe & Think, an emotional wellness app that recommends meditations and activities tuned to your emotions. "Being a really good listener is one of the keys to supporting great relationships of all kinds, and mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is a way of paying attention with openness, a sense of warmth and friendliness, and without judging. When you listen mindfully, you are fully present and able to take in what the other person is saying. You aren't formulating an opinion or judgment about what they are saying or distracted by your phone. You are simply giving the gift of your undivided attention."
We've all been in situations when we're hearing and not truly listening. It's okay. Michael P. Nichols, experienced therapist and author of The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, explains how to become a better listener, which is surprisingly simple.
Good Listening Is About Acknowledgment and Understanding
"A good listener is someone who spends their own agenda holding back what's on their mind and gives over to the other person by inviting them to talk," explains Nichols. "A good listener concentrates on trying to understand what the other person's trying to explain, doesn't interrupt, listens carefully, and acknowledges what they think the other person is trying to say. A good acknowledgment is when you say what you think the other person is trying to say by inviting them to say more or to elaborate."
He reiterates the importance of listening intently, holding yourself back, and acknowledgment. "Really good listening is making an effort to understand what the person is saying to you, not reacting to their words, not interrupting, not telling your own side of things, and instead just concentrating on understanding what they're saying and then acknowledging what they're saying," says Nichols.
Most of Us Think We're Better Listeners Than We Are
"Listening is something that we take for granted," says Nichols. "We do it on automatic pilot—most of us think we're better listeners than we are." He points out a bad listening technique that happens very often, which is to sum up what the other person in your conversation is saying briefly and think that's enough, rather than telling them you get what they're saying and inviting them to say more.
Good Listening Significantly Improves Relationships
"Listening is so powerful it's hard to explain," Nichols admits. "People hunger all their lives to express what's on their mind, be heard, and to be acknowledged—we rarely get enough. You may notice particularly the yearning to be heard and understood if something really good or bad happens in life. Until you're able to be listened to, it's an unsatisfied longing and need."
He continues: "A bad listener conveys that you don't matter. By the same token, if you tell an important story and the other person's response is to tell their own, you feel dismissed and trivialized. In the process of being listened to we experience that what we feel matters, what we're saying is legitimate, it counts, and that someone understands us. If someone understands us, in turn, we feel like our experience means something and is real."
You Don't Have to Generously Listen to Everyone
"One misunderstanding is to think that you have to be the generous listener to everyone you encounter, which will wear you out," Nichols confirms. "It's not necessary to listen closely and intensely to everyone. We do owe it to the people we care about to truly listen, especially if they're talking about something that's important to them."
There Is a Listening Cycle
"If you don't have people in your life who listen well to you, you go around hungry to say what's on your mind," explains Nichols. "If I'm talking to you and you make some effort to listen to me, it's hard to hold back what's on your mind because your own needs from listening haven’t been met."
And now it's your choice to make a conscious decision to listen.