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Listening is so much more than what you do with your ears. It’s also about your eye contact, the mental (or physical) notes you take, and your body language.
 
A great thing to note is that when you improve your listening skills, you will enhance relationships not only on a professional level, but also with friends and family :)
 
Here we've put together a list of eight key ways to improve your ability to be an effective listener. As you read through each step, reflect back on recent conversations you’ve had and think about how well you did (or didn't!) put these habits into practice.

1. Respond only once the other person has completely finished talking

People often interrupt others when they’re speaking.

Most of the time, they do this to answer the question they think they’re being asked. Even if you know the answer to a question midway through someones sentence, don’t start talking until the other person has completely finished speaking.

Not speaking until they're finished will ensure that you:

  • Answer the question you’re actually being asked
  • Don’t miss any important details or nuances in the question or perspective
  • Make the speaker feel heard
  • Leave enough time for them to say what they have to say

2. Keep an open mind and don’t preempt questions

It’s essential that you enter conversations with an open mind.

Try not to think too much about the conversation ahead of time, or what you think they’re going to ask about or want to discuss. An important part of effective listening is that you can’t anticipate everything the other person is going to say.

Once the conversation begins, be prepared to let go of your own agenda, thought processes, and judgement, and simply wait to hear what the other person has to say.

3. Keep your eyes on the speaker when they’re talking

Your eye contact and body language has a big impact on how the conversation goes.

You should keep your eyes on the other person while they’re talking, as this will help you avoid distractions, and therefore make the other person feel like you are honed in on your conversation.

If you're communicating virtually (like on Zoom) we've found a good tip is to drag the active speaker window to the top-center of your screen, so that you’re looking towards the camera. 

When watching the speaker, you’ll have a better chance of picking up on any non-verbal cues. This will give more insight into what the speaker is feeling, what they really mean, and anything they’re holding back.

4. Be attentive but also relaxed

While we’re talking about body language, it’s important to adopt a posture and demeanor that is both attentive and relaxed.

You can achieve an attentive and relaxed demeanor when you:

  • Sit up straight, and relatively still
  • Have open body language (for example: no crossed arms)
  • Be fully “present” and don't allow yourself to be distracted by your phone or emails
  • Give some non-verbal encouragement by nodding and smiling (if appropriate)

Doing these things will help people feel like they can discuss things with you openly and honestly, and will help to dispel any fears that you’re there to judge them.

5. Show empathy and mirror emotions

If you've found yourself here on this UX design blog, you probably understand the power of empathy better than most. 

Think about how someone might be feeling in the context of their current situation, and assess both what they say and what they don’t say. Reassure them through occasional and appropriate confirmations (mm-hmms) and aim to mirror their energy and emotional tenor.

You can also show empathy and understanding by repeating key phrases or words that they’ve just said, and by asking clarifying questions.

These practices will show that you’ve listened, understood, and are trying to support them.

6. Embrace moments of silence

Have you ever felt like a moment of silence has stretched on forever? 

Rather than fearing these quiet moments, dismissing them as “awkward,” and willing them to end—do your best to embrace them. Try and resist the temptation to jump in and fill the silence with another question or response.

Welcome moments of silence, and think of them as particularly focused times of thought or contemplation. You can then start to accept them as active parts of the conversation, rather than as failures.

Doing this can also make space for new questions and thoughts to surface.

7. Make suggestions, but don’t impose solutions

Another way you can show you’re actively listening in a supportive way is to provide suggestions rather than solutions.

Instead of jumping in with a direct solution to a problem someone is facing, it’s beneficial (in many ways) to suggest specific things they could do to generate a solution of their own.

Here are some examples of questions that offer suggestions rather than solutions:

  • “Have you tried...?”
  • “Have you considered...?”
  • “Did you try approaching it from...?”

This will encourage people to think independently—empowering them to make their own design decisions. 

8. Summarize the key takeaways and action items

In any conversation where you're attempting to be an effective listener, it helps to summarize the key takeaways and action items. 

This will help bring the conversation to a less abrupt conclusion. It will also ensure the conversation ends on an activating, positive, and forward-looking note.

Key takeaways and action items prove that you were listening and cared about what was discussed.

Here’s a summary of some things you can do to ensure you’re being an effective listener:

  1. Respond only once the other person has completely finished talking
  2. Keep an open mind and don’t preempt questions
  3. Maintain eye contact while they’re talking
  4. Be attentive but also relaxed
  5. Show empathy and mirror your student’s emotions
  6. Embrace moments of silence
  7. Make suggestions, but don’t impose solutions
  8. Summarize the key takeaways and action points

If you're interested in practicing effective listening skills and having 1:1 conversations about UX design with mentors from companies like Airbnb, Facebook, Amazon and more, explore our UX Academy program.

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Emma Shimmens

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