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3 Tips for Really Listening

We all want to be heard. We want to be understood. We want undivided attention as we share our thoughts, feelings, worries, triumphs and trials; as we share ourselves. That means the other person isn’t playing with the phone or watching TV. The listeners aren’t distracted in other ways. They aren’t interrupting us. They aren’t judging us. They aren’t rushing us. They’re listening, quietly and patiently, to what we have to say.

But a lot of us aren’t very good at listening. Because, as it turns out, listening isn’t all that easy. It isn’t a natural instinct or a character trait. Listening well is a skill. It takes effort.

As Michael P. Nichols, Ph.D, writes in The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, sincere, careful listening “takes strenuous and unselfish restraint. To listen well we must forget ourselves and submit to the other person’s need for attention.”

When we listen well, we don’t just take in information, we also “bear witness to another’s experience.” We take a genuine interest in the speaker, suspend our own agenda, and stop thinking about what we want to say, writes Nichols, a therapist and professor of psychology at the College of William and Mary.

“Temporarily, at least, listening is a one-sided relationship.”

The Lost Art of Listening is packed with valuable (and surprising) insights into listening, real-life stories, clear-cut examples and exercises we can try. This is important, because sometimes we think we’re showing empathy and being supportive, and yet we’re doing anything but.

Below are three tips from the book.

Don’t confuse sympathy with empathy

Sometimes, we show an exaggerated level of concern (e.g., “Oh, that’s terrible!!!”). We think we’re just being compassionate. But, as Nichols writes, “acting distressed isn’t the same thing as listening.” And exaggerated responses can come off as fake and patronizing.

Nichols shares the difference between sympathy and empathy: “Sympathy is more limited and limiting; it means to feel the same as rather than to be understanding. Nor does empathy mean, as many people seem to think, worrying about, praising, cheering up, gushing, consoling, or even encouraging. It means understanding.”

Be reassuring in the right times

If a loved one is scared, sad or upset, naturally we want to reassure him or her. No one likes seeing their friends or family members in pain. But to the individuals who are spilling their soul, reassurance can feel dismissive.

“A lot of failed listening takes the form of telling people not to feel the way they do,” Nichols writes.

When you listen to people’s worries and hurt, you convey that you’re taking them seriously.

Of course, sometimes, a person does want to be reassured. As examples, Nichols notes that this might be when you’re unhappy with your haircut and a friend says, “No, it looks good”; or you’re upset about not having accomplished much, and someone lists all your incredible achievements, which makes you feel better.

It’s not always easy to tell when someone wants to be listened to or reassured. According to Nichols, “The more a speaker expresses self-doubt or worry or concern in a questioning or tentative way, the more likely he is to want reassurance. The stronger the feelings, the more likely he is to appreciate being heard and acknowledged.”

And what if you’re unsure? “When in doubt, listen.”

Suspend your assumptions

Many of us make assumptions about what others are going to say. We jump to conclusions. We cut people off and finish their sentences. We interject with, “Oh, I know!” or “Me too!” or “I hate when that happens!”

When we do this, we have good intentions. We want to be kind. But the other person gets the message that we’re just not listening.

Again, the core of good listening is empathy. Empathy requires two things: The first is to be open like a “moviegoer who allows himself to be absorbed in a film and moved by the actors,” Nichols writes. The second is to “shift from feeling with a speaker to thinking about her. What is she saying? Meaning? Feeling?”

Instead of presuming that you understand how someone feels — even if you’ve been in a similar situation — ask. For instance, just because traveling makes you stressed out, doesn’t mean that it’s also stressful for your partner. Or maybe it is stressful for your partner but for very different reasons.

Empathic openness, Nichols writes, is the “essential means of discovering what things look like from inside that person’s world.”

So the next time you’re listening to friends or family members, be receptive and don’t try to change how they’re feeling. Instead, try to understand, try to find out what life is like for them.

Woman listening photo available from Shutterstock

3 Tips for Really Listening

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). 3 Tips for Really Listening. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 17 Dec 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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