The #1 Skill for More Meaningful Conversations

By Leslie Goldman |

Adopt these four tips to be a better listener—because sometimes what you don’t say is even more powerful than what you do.

Mature woman having a conversation with friends at dinner

“You have two ears and one mouth for a reason—so you can listen twice as much as you speak.”

Epictetus the Greek philosopher and Judge Judy have both been credited with offering some version of this quote. And they speak the truth.

“Being a good listener isn’t easy, but it’s a critical skill with the power to make other people–from your spouse or friend to a colleague or aging parent–feel validated,” says social worker Barbra London, M.S.W., director of client experience at Bayada Home Health Care and an expert in geriatric issues. “Everyone wants to feel heard.”

But when it comes to being a strong listener, a long list of factors conspire against us.

Our busy culture means many people are silently running through to-do lists as a friend vents about her tough day; technology tempts us to check our notifications even though our loved one is clearly trying to get our attention. Then there’s the fact that the average person waits less than half a second before responding to the other person in a conversation, according to a study done by researchers in the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands.

The bottom line: You might not be as attentive of a listener as you think you are.

The good news is that just as you can gain muscle by strength training, you can become a better listener with the right strategies. And doing so is a smart move, cultivating trust and enhancing social connections by showing the other person that “we understand what they are saying, why they are saying it, and why it matters to them, which can help us build stronger, more intimate relationships,” says Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and director of the Well-being, Health, and Interpersonal Relationships Lab (WHIRL) at the University of Michigan.

Ready to start listening? Try these expert-backed tips to strengthen your relationships with every conversation.

Listening Tip #1: Listen with the Intent to Learn
London says there are three main categories of listening: passive listeningselective listening, and active listening.

Passive is the most common; you’re partially paying attention, nodding every so often, but you’re not really present. This is the kind of listening many of us engage in when chatting with a stranger at a cocktail party.

Next, there’s selective listening, which is like passive listening but with a special filter that tunes you into key words or phrases that demand your attention. If you’ve ever zoned out during a group Zoom call, only to perk up when you hear your name mentioned, you’ve practiced selective listening.

Active listening is the gold standard. “You’re engaged, asking questions, and showing the other person ‘I want to hear what you have to say,’” London explains. The best way to be an active listener is “to not have an agenda for the conversation, to listen with the intent to learn, and to try to understand what the person is saying and not assume you already know.”

One way to do this is to ask open-ended questions when the person is finished speaking. Examples include:
“What did you mean when you said….?”
“Wow, this really had an impact on you. Can you tell me more about…?”

Asking someone to go into greater detail shows them they have your undivided attention and that you have a genuine interest in what they’ve said.

Listening Tip #2: Get Comfortable with Silence
There’s a tendency to start talking as soon as the other person stops. We’re all guilty of it–someone tells you about something that happened to them and the natural response is to share a story of something similar that once happened to you. London calls this a “me, too” phenomenon, meaning “we’re often thinking of what our response will be to what someone is saying, rather than hearing and digesting it.”

This can make your conversation partner feel ignored, even if that’s not your intent.

The fix: Pause, even for just a few seconds, before responding. “People are very uncomfortable with silence, but silence really is golden,” London says. “It gives both parties an opportunity to reflect, to digest what has just been said. Also, if you wait to respond, people will often continue even further with their thoughts, which can provide further clarity.”

Most people feel a need to fill in any gaps of silence with conversation, though, so “we hurry up and [respond],” she says, “losing the opportunity for deeper meaning” in the process.

The next time you’re having a heart-to-heart with someone, or even just a casual conversation, remind yourself to pause a few beats after they finish speaking, and take the opportunity to think about what they’ve said. This skill demands desire, practice, and intention, but it will reap many rewards in terms of strengthening your relationships and even helping you evolve personally, thanks to the new meaning you draw from conversations.

Listening Tip #3: Echo Their Words
Picture this: You’re dining out at a restaurant with several friends or family and place a large food and drink order. Rather than write it all down, your server smiles as you speak and simply says “got it” before leaving to ring up the order. You probably wouldn’t feel totally confident that she or he got the order correct.

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On the other hand, if the server wrote down every appetizer, main course, and beverage, including requested substitutions, and then repeated them back to you, you’d likely feel very confident that she or he was listening.

This communication technique, called echoing, can work in everyday conversations too, says Leil Lowndes, author of How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships. “Repeat back the last three or so words someone said. Hearing their words come out of your mouth creates a subliminal rapport, making them feel like you are sharing in their experience.”

Lowndes adds that using a slight questioning tone can subtly encourage them to keep talking. So, if the other person says, “I saw a really great show the other day,” you might reply, “Oh, a really good show? Tell me more.”

A study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology found this sort of language mirroring can foster social connectedness and a feeling of safety. (And it truly does work for restaurant servers; an International Journal of Hospitality Management study found that waitresses who “verbally mimicked” customers’ orders were more likely to receive higher tips.)

Listening Tip #4: Remember Your Body Language
Up to 65 percent of communication is nonverbal, London says. Words matter, of course, but so does body language. Eye contact, nodding, and head tilting all communicate interest and attentiveness.

Lowndes recommends matching the other person’s mood by speaking at the same rate of speech as they’re speaking. “If they’re excited about something, you speak excitedly too. If they’re laid back, you can be laid back too,” she says.

Other ways to use body language to convey active listening include uncrossing your arms and legs and leaning towards the other person, not away. These moves “show that you are receptive to other people’s ideas,” according to the international nonprofit organization Global Listening Centre.

Leaning back, on the other hand, can signal negativity or lack of interest, as will checking a cell phone for messages or looking at your watch.

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