Highly effective listening is a conflict resolution superpower — it reduces defensiveness, diminishes extreme reaction, and increases open-mindedness. And it’s learnable. To be a highly effective listener, pay particular attention to these three essential components of great listening.
When there’s conflict, good listening increases the likelihood of effective resolution. Good listening is also a building block of resilient and rewarding personal and professional relationships. When we listen well, we signal responsiveness, and this responsiveness is a driver of
- Relationship satisfaction and intimacy in personal relationships,
- Reduced employee defensiveness and increased employee interest in improvement and flourishing,
- A sense of well-being in a relationship, and
- Increased ability to cope with stress.
What makes someone perceive us as responsive? In a 2021 journal article, a group of social psychologists identified three factors:
- We must feel understood by our conversation partners. Feeling understood makes a relationship feel more authentic and is intrinsically satisfying.
- We must feel validated, believing our conversation partner appreciates us and values how we see ourselves in the world.
- We must feel cared for — that we matter.
The three components of highly effective listening
Drawing on the three factors, along with prior research about high-quality listening, the authors identified three essential components of highly effective listening. These three components are excellent places to focus when we want to improve our own listening.
Attention means focusing on the speaker and their message fully, avoiding and ignoring other stimuli. As I’ve said before, multitasking is bad for good listening. When we glance over at a message that’s showing on our phone screen our attention is divided by the “switch costs” of multitasking and we can’t help but miss part of their message (this applies to you avid note-takers, too). Down goes their sense of our responsiveness.
As the authors point out, inattentive listeners not only hinder their own goal of demonstrating responsiveness, but can also distract the speaker and hinder their ability to be introspective.
Practice these habits to focus and convey your attention:
- Give full attention to the speaker, minimizing distractions.
- Use “backchannel” listening behaviors. Backchannel behaviors are non-verbals that indicate we’re engaged, including nodding, eye contact, and orienting oneself to the speaker’s body position.
- Listen without our answer running. Listening, as communications expert Scott Ginsberg said, is not just waiting to talk.
Comprehension refers to the extent to which the listener accurately understands both the speaker’s cognitive and affective states — their message and their feelings. As the article authors point out, commitment to comprehension requires energy and, therefore, motivation.
It’s common to hear people practicing good listening by re-stating the speaker’s key points, and this is an excellent start. For some it may feel safer to avoid the “messiness” of emotions, but when we take that approach, we ignore a key component of their full message.
Practice these habits to increase and convey your interest in comprehending:
- Paraphrase the speaker’s message or perspective.
- Acknowledge the speaker’s feelings, mood, and/or emotions.
- Ask open questions relevant to the speaker’s message and story.
- Request clarification when not understanding the speaker’s point.
- Request that the speaker repeat something the listener missed.
- Practice transparency when overwhelmed by a long-winded speaker.
Intention refers to listening with positive regard, validation, and a non-judgmental approach towards the speaker, even when we disagree with them.
The intention component is probably the most difficult component to practice honestly when we’re irritated, frustrated, or otherwise feeling unhappy with our conversation partner. It’s the component we need to dig deepest to practice with integrity and consistency. It’s also the component with some of the biggest rewards in our relationships when we commit to getting it right over time.
Practice these habits to increase and convey your helpful intention:
- Commit to looking for and seeing the equal human in front of us, the person as perfect and flawed as we are.
- Lead with our curiosity instead of our judgmentalism, allowing them to be the experts in their own experience.
- Use “hedges,” words that soften the tone of a conversation and indicate a non-judgmental attitude (“somewhat,” “might”).
- For mediators, consider the downside of setting ground rules at the start of a mediation.