Top tips that will make you an outstanding listener
Before you even think about your responses to other people, you need to sharpen your listening skills. Have you ever had a conversation with someone whose body is there, but their mind is not? Frustrating, isn’t it?
Poor communicators think that “listening” is merely the act of waiting for their turn to speak all while mentally composing their response. This is a grave mistake. Listening is so much more – it’s a way of providing someone else the chance to share their thoughts and ideas, to build emotional intimacy, and to show empathy.
Today, you’re going to learn the basics of great listening, and then undertake an exercise that will allow you to put these tips into practice.
Listening isn’t simply about giving another person the chance to vocalize what’s on their mind, although this is valuable in its own right. Listening is also the first step toward personal change.
Psychotherapist Carl Rogers, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, noted that when someone gives us the chance to talk about what has happened to us and how we feel about it, we start to realize the best way to change our thoughts and behaviors.
Although taking advice from someone else can be useful, we are most likely to change for the better if we work through our problems out ourselves. Being able to talk freely to an understanding listener is one of the most effective ways of achieving this.
If your conversation partner rambles or their thoughts don’t seem to make sense, hold your tongue and give them the space they need. They might want to talk to several other people first before implementing a plan, or they may need to process the issue in their own time. Try not to get frustrated! Extend to others the patience you would like to receive in return.
1. Use non-intrusive verbal and non-verbal signals to encourage them to keep talking: Nodding, and saying, “Uh-huh” and “I see” are short, unobtrusive signals that encourage further disclosure. Silence is also okay – sometimes, someone needs a few moments to get their thoughts organized before continuing the conversation. Give them space.
2. Let them keep going until they run out of steam: When I learned to listen properly, I was amazed to discover that a lot of people desperately want someone to slow down and hear what they have to say. This is especially true if they feel angry, upset, or need to work through a problem. One of the most useful, fundamental – and difficult – listening skills of all is to keep quiet and let the other person hold the floor. If you are dealing with an angry or frustrated individual, they won’t be able to think clearly until they have offloaded everything that’s on their mind.
3. Do not play the role of armchair psychologist: To some extent, everyone is a psychologist. We all like to come up with our own theories about why so-and-so is so angry all the time, why our cousin always falls for men who treat her badly, etc.  Analyze away – on your own time. When someone shares important information with you, do not speculate about their personal motivations, or why they behave in a particular manner. At best, you’ll come across as a bit too nosy. At worst, your conversation partner will feel patronized and angry. At you.
4. Do not interrupt with unsolicited advice: Even if you’ve been in the same situation or faced the same problems as someone else, do not offer your ideas or solutions unless asked for them. There are few things more annoying than unwanted advice or suggestions. Resist the urge to tell them that you know exactly what they are going through. To put it bluntly, you don’t. Two people can have a similar experience, yet their personality types, upbringing, and previous life events mean that they will not experience the same emotions. If your conversation partner asks for your input, then go ahead – but gauge their response. If they appear open to your feedback, continue. However, if they start frowning, crossing their arms, or give any indication that your advice isn’t helpful or welcome, stop and ask whether they want you to continue. Remember, no one is obliged to follow your recommendations. Put your ego to one side. Once you have contributed, it’s up to the other person to strategize their next move. Furthermore, they may not be divulging the whole story, and they will need to take other facts and considerations into account when drawing up a plan of action.
5. Re-phrase someone else’s words, but don’t parrot them back: You may have heard that repeating someone’s words back to them shows that you have been listening. This is true – to a point. A fine line exists between reflecting the understanding and quoting someone verbatim. I’ll use an example to illustrate the concept. Suppose that your friend said the following: “I’ve been feeling quite lonely lately. It seems like my family doesn’t care what I’m doing or whether I’m even happy.” Here are two potential replies. Which do you think would help your friend feel truly heard, and which would make them feel really annoyed? “So, you feel like they aren’t giving you much attention right now?” Or “You’ve been feeling lonely lately, and like your family doesn’t care what you’re doing?” The second response shows that you heard the actual words, but it also sounds downright weird! Your friend might wonder if she’s been talking to a parrot instead of a normal human being. I prefer the first response since it reflects an absorption of the meaning behind the words in addition to the words themselves.
6. Check your assumptions: We all tend to view the world through the lens of our own preferences and experiences. For example, if you are close to your parents and enjoy talking to your mother on the phone every week, you are likely to be upset on someone else’s behalf if they tell you that their own mother is very ill. But if your conversation partner happens to have a distant relationship with their parents, they probably won’t expect an overly sympathetic reaction. In fact, your sympathy might make them feel uncomfortable.
What’s the lesson here? Do not project your own feelings onto someone else. Let them tell you what a situation means for them personally. Under no circumstances should you tell them how to feel. Accept everyone’s differences, and that no one will react in the same way under the same circumstances.
Put It Into Practice.
Your challenge for today is to phone a friend or relative you haven’t seen or spoken to in a while, and then use the conversation as an opportunity to practice your active listening skills.
You don’t need to be on the phone for hours, just try 20-minute catchup. Ask them what they’ve been doing lately and strive to listen attentively. You might be shocked to discover how often you slip into bad listening habits. Afterward, reread this chapter and make an honest assessment of how you did.
This exercise also comes with a nice bonus. By phoning your friend or relative, you can build and improve your relationship. Recall the last time someone called you up unexpectedly and truly wanted to know how you were doing. It felt good, didn’t it? You felt valued. The person you call is going to feel the same way. Maybe you could even make it a habit to phone them regularly.