How To Pay Attention

When you’re listening during a conversation, your focus should be on one thing–and no, no, not on yourself. Your focus instead needs to be on the other person you’re talking with.

Listening means basically the same thing as paying attention, and paying attention is basically focusing on one thing. Again, this should be on the other person you’re having a conversation with, not on yourself.

friends listening
During a conversation, you’re either listening or talking. When you’re listening, pay attention with your heart and soul.

The Importance of Paying Attention

If you pay attention to the other person, that is, really pay attention, you should be comfortable and natural. That’s because you’ll no longer be worried about yourself and feeling self-conscious.

Studies show, however, that most people only listen to or remember about 25% to 50% of what other people say. This may partly explain why there are millions of people who suffer from social anxiety!

Being a great listener will surely alleviate anxiety, if not eliminate it.

Another benefit is it will make you more popular. In the classic book How To Win Friends And Influence People, Dale Carnegie says, “If you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested…Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering.”

How To Be All Ears

First, consider the things that impede listening and SUBTRACT them.
Here’s 6 things to GET RID OF:

  • Thinking about what YOU’RE going to say next while the other person is talking. (If you’re rehearsing what to say next, you’re not paying attention.) If you just listen carefully, you’ll automatically know what to say in reply.
  • Worrying about how you come across in general, such as unsure about what to do with your face or hands.
  • Thinking about what the other person may be thinking of you, as opposed to thinking about what they’re saying.
  • Mind wandering, perhaps set off by something that was said, leading to an internal mental chain reaction where you’ve moved into your own world of thoughts.
  • Focusing on irrelevant matters about the other person and getting distracted, such as a vocal accent, dress, or having prejudiced thinking.
  • Looking around at other things rather than giving other person undivided attention.

(Subtract and add to be a great listener.)

Then consider the things that are elements of active listening and ADD them.
Here’s 6 things to ADD ON:

  • Think about your purpose for listening. Is it to learn something? Or maybe it’s to just be friendly and act like a friend? Whatever the purpose, keep it in mind, since this will help you listen with focus.
  • Pay attention to the other person’s nonverbal communication as well as verbal. This is fully engaged listening and will help put you in the other person’s shoes. When you understand where the other person is coming from, you’ll feel more empathy. Also, occasionally nonverbal and verbal communication may be inconsistent, and this can tell you something that’s not verbally said.
  • Be comfortable with your own nonverbal communication so you don’t worry about how you come across.  Body language experts recommend that you have open body language, with arms uncrossed, and hands visible, not hiding in pockets. When you carry yourself confidently, you won’t be worried much if at all with how you come across.
  • Act as if you’re listening to improve listening. For instance, use good eye contact and lean slightly forward, since this is what you’d do if you were attentive.

    museum of communication
    “Really”, “hmm”, “oh?” and the like lets you stay involved in the conversation even if not saying much and will help you stay tuned in.

  • Stay active in conversation. James J. Crist, Ph.D, author of The Survival Guide For Making And Being Friends, suggests staying active to avoid being distracted. He says, “Sometimes just nodding your head and saying ‘Uh-huh’ is enough. But you can take it a step further by saying something enthusiastic.” Stay engaged by interjecting words such as “Awesome!”, “Cool!”, “Tell me more”,”Sounds like fun”, etc.
  • If you do start getting self-conscious during conversation, meaning you start thinking about yourself and how you’re coming across, David Morin of SocialPro recommends that you ask yourself questions (in your head) regarding what the other person is talking about. He says, “Let’s say someone mentions volunteering at a dog shelter. When you focus on what someone’s talking about, you’ll notice that you’ll soon be able to come up with a lot of questions.

What’s it like at the shelter?

Does she walk dogs as a volunteer?

How does she feel about working without pay?

Would she recommend working at a shelter?


cartoon person meditatingBONUS TIP: Besides the 12 things already mentioned, here’s one more for a Baker’s dozen. The one additional thing is meditation. That is, meditating sharpens listening.


In A Nutshell

It takes just as much practice to listen well as to speak well. Though it may not appear that way, listening is just as active a process as speaking (similar to how reading is just as active as writing but in a different way).

The more your mind is engaged and without extraneous thoughts or distractions while listening, the more you’ll understand, remember, and relate well with others.

Best of all, if you listen wholeheartedly, you’ll truly get into the conversation and make a connection.

12 Replies to “How To Pay Attention

  1. I need to print this website right away! I teach and I am pretty sure my students need to read this website a few times. Since they can barely pay attention, kids need shorter lists with a lot less words. Do you have a quick 3 points that could help students out?

    1. Hi TeachExploreRun,got to say it’s music to my ears to hear that you want to share my website and/or article with kids you teach. Makes my day. 🙂

      I think focusing on 3 points is a good idea.

      My suggestion would be to select the 3 points that are most “kid-friendly.” IMO, the most important point is to actually pay attention to other person while they’re speaking and NOT think about what you’re going to say next, AND while paying attention, notice the person’s body language and not just words said because this will help in understanding the other person’s emotions and where they’re coming from, leading to greater understanding.

  2. I think I’m guilty of a few of these… Like thinking about what I want to say as a person is talking. I love to think I’m a good listener, but I guess there’s room for improvement. I think I need to chuck some of your suggestions down and focus on one or two till they are ingrained. Thanks for this excellent reminder.

    1. Yes, indeed, Jackie, there’s a variety of things that can get in the way of listening wholeheartedly, including thinking about what to say next instead of really listening while someone’s talking.

      Focusing on just one or two things at a time to become a better listener is a good idea.

  3. I think sometimes I’m a bad listener, especially when the topic not relating or interesting to me. When someone talk about something I have no interest, I just react with a nod, smile and answer with the simplest answer. Just to let them know that I’m listening when I’m really not.

    I should considering my purpose for listening and put myself in their shoes so I can be more a good listener.

    Thank you so much for this great article 🙂

    1. I see what you mean, Diana. It can of course be more difficult to pay attention or listen if someone is talking on a topic that is of no interest to you. It seems then that nodding, smiling, and answer with the simplest and perhaps brief answer would be the correct way to go, to sort of acknowledge that you’re listening and sort of get the point across that you’re not really interested in the topic. If the other person is reading between the lines and has good social skills, they should then understand to change the topic to something you both might be interested in.

      Yes, it seems putting oneself in another person’s shoes solves much interpersonal communication issues.

  4. Hi Jean,

    I absolutely agree with this. I find if I listen, I feel better as I am distracted by someone else’s thoughts and concerns, taking me out of myself. Empathy makes me feel happier, I can empathize by listening.

    Due to my own insecurities, I am sometimes wonder what the other person thinks of me instead of listening to what they are saying. which is sad, as I miss out on making new friends.

    I forget to listen all too easily. Are there times when you forget to be a good listener?

    1. Hello Mike. Well, I would say listening is not my strong point, but I’m improving. My mind naturally tends to turn inward, so it’s not just during conversation but even when I’m watching TV, I just kind of lose track of what’s going on. But I agree that during conversation, it can be more complex than not paying attention in other ways because of thinking about how one is coming across. It’s just a matter of becoming aware, catching oneself, and training the mind, I think.

  5. This is actually true, sometimes just for the sake of asking a question we tend to not listen to what the person is talking right in front of our face.
    This article is a must read since most of us tend to do these mistakes without realizing. Thanks for the great post.

    1. I agree, Shrey, it’s sometimes challenging to follow what the other person in front of one’s face is saying. I’ve found that part of the problem is that there are a multitude of things one could be paying attention to, and sometimes paying attention to several things at the same time, which really isn’t paying attention at all, since the mind can really only take in one thing at a time. Hence, when I go out and observe, I make a point of either seeing or listening but not both at once. Some days I’ll focus on listening to what people around me are saying. Other days our focus on seeing what people are wearing and the buildings, etc. This is my way of dealing with learning to be more observant as well as being a better listener. Thanks.

  6. I think your last paragraph sums listening up. Concentrating wholeheartedly in focusing solely on the person you are having the conversation with plus like you mention earlier, stepping inside the shoes of the person fully immerses you in the conversation, accomplishing questions to pop up inside your head to which answers make the conversation flow and more interesting.

    The problem we all have is when we clearly have no interest in the conversation, I’m guilty of this many times. This is when you avert attention inside your head to focus on whether you are looking interested hence, what do you do with your hands etc.

    Interesting article, most people do confuse hearing with paying attention and listening, there’s no doubt,
    Simon.

    1. Yes, Simon, I think focusing solely on the other person enables us to “see” the other person better too, which facilitates empathy. At least, that’s my experience.

      Indeed, thinking about how we’re coming across or putting on pretense of being interested in the other person while they’re speaking when we’re really not sure can trip us up. As soon as we become aware of this, we need to forget about our appearances or how we’re coming across and really listen again. As stated, a way to get back into the conversation is to ask questions regarding what the other person is saying. For example, I wonder if she enjoys walking the dogs at the shelter she volunteers at.

      Right, listening is understanding, not just hearing blah blah per se.

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