How to be a good listener

Effective listening requires more than nodding your head.

How to be a good listener

Listening carefully is crucial to career success.

Everyone has been in those meetings where you see the speaker’s mouth moving but the words coming out are sort of going in one ear and out the other. Time to snap out of it and learn how to listen—really listen—if you want drive your career forward. “People tend to focus on the speaking part of communication, but I think a lot of people undervalue the importance of their ability to listen effectively,” laments Carol Vernon, executive coach and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based firm Communication Matters.

Effective listening means not only hearing what the people around you are saying, but also inferring what they’re leaving out. “There’s a big difference between hearing and listening,” says Casey Carpenter, an executive communications consultant. “Just because you’re hearing someone speak doesn’t mean you’re actually processing what the person is saying.”

Fortunately, you can learn how to be a good listener with some simple tricks and practice.

Put away your cell phone

It’s important to remove any physical distractions that might impair your ability to listen, and that starts with sticking your cell phone in your pocket (or in a drawer) and putting it in silent mode. “A big part of listening is being present, and in a world where we are so distracted by cell phones, it’s really important to stay focused in the moment and give your full attention when someone is speaking,” Carpenter explains.

Pay attention to nonverbal cues

Part of effective listening requires you to read a person’s body language. “You can glean a lot of information from someone’s posture, hand gestures, and other subtle cues,” says Carpenter.

Need a little help interpreting body language? Generally, experts recommend looking for these signs:

Positive: 

  • Direct eye contact
  • Relaxed facial muscles
  • Friendly smile
  • Hands are in view, opened, and relaxed
  • Arms are open

Negative: 

  • Rapid eye movement
  • A cold, glaring, or glazed-over look
  • A raised eyebrow as if in disbelief or doubt
  • Tight facial muscles
  • Stiff, forced smile
  • Hands are closed or in a fist
  • Arms are tightly crossed (indicating a defensive or protective position)
  • Fidgeting

Mind your body language, too

In the same vein, your own nonverbal cues will indicate to the speaker whether you’re actually listening carefully to what the person is saying. This includes nodding your head, leaning forward, facing the speaker directly, smiling, and, perhaps most important, maintaining good eye contact.

Restate what the speaker says

One of the best ways to ensure that you heard someone correctly is to summarize what the person just said, says Rebecca Zucker, executive coach and founder at San Francisco-based firm Next Step Partners. “This is especially important if the other person has a thick accent or speaks quickly, to the point where it makes it difficult for you to follow what the person is saying,” Zucker says.

Be clear about your intention, Carpenter adds. (“I just want to make sure I heard everything correctly.”)

Don’t interrupt

Put simply, “you can’t talk and listen at the same time,” says Barbara Pachter, author of The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes. Read: let the other person speak without interrupting.

Also, don’t finish the person’s sentences. “Be patient,” Zucker says. “Oftentimes, we assume we know what the other person is going to say, but we’re not listening closely when we make those assumptions.”

Too busy? Find a better time to talk

If your boss or co-worker tries to initiate conversation when you’re knee-deep in an important assignment or are working on a tight deadline, it’s OK to express that now isn’t the best time to chat, says Carpenter. Try: “I want to be fully present for this conversation, but I’m busy right now. Let’s schedule a time so that we can talk.”

Alternatively, you could prevent people from approaching you completely by taping a piece of paper to your cubicle that indicates you’re busy. Opt for a playful message, like, “Please do not disturb. I’m in the zone,” or, “Please do not disturb unless the office is on fire or there are puppies.”

Sharpen all of your skills

Effective listening skills are super helpful for excelling in your career, but they’re just one of the many tools that you have at your disposal. Want to know more? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you’ll get career advice, job search tips, and workplace insights sent directly to your inbox to help you hone all of your skills like a pro.