How to Be a Better Listener in Person

how to be a better listener in person

Your ability to communicate successfully is directly related to your career success.  Listening well is also a big part of how to be a better communicator at work. Communication, of course, takes place in person, electronically on the phone and in virtual meetings, and in writing through email, text, and chat. Successful communication starts with mastering your listening skills, whether at work or in a personal relationship. This applies whether the relationship is ongoing, such as with a coworker, or a one-time encounter with a customer.

In a study of how and why some customer service calls went well and others didn’t, Vertex Data Science, one of the world’s largest call center outsourcing providers, partnered with Professor Alex Pentland at the MIT Media Lab to gain insights into the topic. It turned out that, after only a few seconds of listening to a call, they were able to accurately predict the success or failure of nearly every call. They discovered that the most successful operators speak less and listen more. Additionally, their speech patterns use appropriate levels of inflection to seem more credible and caring to their callers. (The study actually involved the development of electronic devices that monitored call center operator speech patterns. You can read more about it here.)

So, here are nine tips on how to improve your listening skills in person. Many of these tips are the same for listening on the phone or even in writing. Listening in person, however, has the advantage, of course, of you and the other person being able to see each other’s body language, including facial expressions.

Use active listening techniques.

Being engaged with the other person is a big part of active listening. Active listening is more than just silently listening. It involves interacting with the other person in ways that let them know you’re listening. 

Be careful about assumptions.

One of my favorite books is Don’t Believe Everything You Think by Thomas Kida. Watch out for your personal biases. Consider, even, how your history with a particular user might be clouding your mind with pre-conceived notions about what the problem is or what caused it. Be open to viewing an old situation through new eyes and ears.

Check your body language.

Ensure your body language conveys the message that you’re listening. Your body language is part of how to be a better active listener. Are you leaning forward? Does your body seem open or is it closed off to the other person? Are you nodding your head at appropriate moments and giving other physical cues that you’re listening?

Check your appearance.

As odd as it may seem, your appearance may affect how the other person perceives your listening skills. Are you dressed appropriately for your workplace? What’s appropriate for a conservative law office will probably be different from, say, a company that develops video games.

Lose distractions.

This is generally true. It’s especially true when listening in person. Just ignore your phone’s alerts or whatever is going on behind the person who’s speaking. Concentrate on the speaker!

Ask questions for clarification.

Ask questions like a student, not as a prosecutor. Make sure your questions are relevant.

Let them finish.

Don’t interrupt. Don’t jump in with your ideas and responses before the other person is finished speaking. Just wait!

Use empathy.

Put yourself in the position of the other person, at least to the best of your ability. Think about what you would want if you were them. How would you want them to respond? How would you view facial expressions and other body language signals?

Treat the other person with dignity and respect. 

Part of your job as a listener is to allow the other person to maintain their dignity and self-respect. If they’re saying something that sounds foolish, find a way to let them get out of it gracefully.

Stop talking.

When you’re speaking, you hear only what you already know. Best to stop talking and listen carefully to the other person.

Learn How to Be a Better Communicator in the Workplace

Check out the Compassionate Geek on-demand course How to Be a Better Listener: The Fine Art of Listening Well. See the course description, outline, and sample videos here.


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