Hearing someone is one thing, but truly listening? Now, that’s a whole other story. With a little practice, it’s possible to learn how to be a better listener.
You’ve likely been there: You’re sharing something important, but the person you’re talking with is focused on anything but your words. They’re looking at their phone, looking around the room, totally disengaged.
You might walk away feeling unsatisfied. Or worse, unseen.
As they say, don’t be that guy. To become a polished active listener and strengthen your connections in everyday interactions, a few pointers may help.
Tips to be a better listener
Below you’ll get more detail on these strategic steps:
- keep them talking: use verbal and nonverbal encouragers
- feedback (using “I” statements)
- name and describe
- pause or be silent
When you repeat facts or important details back to someone, it sends a clear message that you’re picking up what they’re putting down.
For example, “So, then what happened after John called you back?”
After your conversation partner is done telling a story, find a way to thread the details together, then ask to make sure what you heard is accurate.
It may sound something like, “It sounds like you’re frustrated because your boss dismissed your idea, am I hearing that correctly?”
According to a
Minimal encouragers include actions like:
- making direct eye contact
- having open body language
- carrying an engaged facial expression
- nodding your head
Minimal encouragers also include employing a few verbal reactions, like:
- “I see.”
- “Then what?”
To help someone feel heard, you can think of yourself as a mirror. Reflect back to them that you’re taking their words as seriously as they are.
For example, “I can see that what happened at your work meeting today was really important to you.”
It’s best practice to ask permission to give guidance, such as, “I have a suggestion about how to go about this. Are you open to feedback?”
If you get a green light, you could share your observations about the situation and how you’ve handled something similar in the past.
If the other person says they don’t want your feedback, you can respond by thanking them for their honesty and moving on.
Name the core emotion
You might be able to suss out an underlying emotion to better understand what might be going on with the person you’re talking with.
Psychologist Robert Putchick designed an eight-pronged wheel of foundational emotions and the sentiments that branch out from each. It’s still being studied and updated today.
Identifying someone’s emotion when they’re communicating might look like this:
If a friend tells you a date didn’t show up, you might try, “You sound pensive, my friend. I hear you expressing some annoyance. If that happened to me, I’d be a bit angry and sad.”
If given the opportunity, probe
If appropriate, you may find it useful to dig a little deeper by asking open-ended questions or hypotheticals. For example, “What will you say if they offer you the job tomorrow?”
To show that you’re on the same wavelength, you can express how much it means to you that someone opened up.
It could sound like, “I know this wasn’t easy to talk about. It means a lot to me that you feel comfortable enough to share this.”
Employ the pregnant pause
Rather than jumping into a response after someone finishes speaking, soak in what you just heard. Try taking one mindful breath before you begin a sentence.
One mouth, two ears: This age-old adage exists for good reason.
Instead of being concerned about how you’re going to respond, focus on what the other person is saying.
Have you ever had someone “should” on you? It doesn’t exactly feel warm and fuzzy. You may walk away feeling criticized, judged, or blamed — none of which spell good communication.
To avoid falling into a “you should this” or “you should try that” expectations and judgments trap, you can lean on “I” statements instead.
If things start to go on a tangent, you may gently redirect the person you’re speaking with. You could try this: “Before we move on, can we back up and talk about that other thing?”
Repeat back patterns, but let them draw a conclusion
Sometimes, active listening involves noticing patterns or parallels. You may find it useful to gently point out a past scenario — if it’s relevant. Be sure to keep it open-ended, though, so the person you’re talking with can do the heavy lifting.
For example: “I remember you saying something similar the last time you got back together. What happened after you moved back in with him?”
Some open-ended, thoughtful questions can deepen a conversation.
With that said, it’s important that the person you’re speaking with doesn’t feel like they’re in a job interview — or on the witness stand. Here’s how to find that careful balance.
These kinds of questions move beyond “yes” or “no” territory.
We all absorb information differently, depending on our personal biases and filters. To avoid communication gaffes, take the time to double-check what you’re hearing.
Before you respond, slow down and be mindful about the words you choose and how you phrase your questions.
Leading (presumptive) questions
A leading question includes your bias in a subtle way. It can make the exchange more about confirming your opinion than the speaker’s unique viewpoints.
If you’re not careful, these questions can come across as judgmental.
Yes or no (closed-ended) questions
While brief, closed-ended questions don’t exactly motivate someone to keep speaking.
In the age of distractions, active listening is both an art form and a vital skill to learn.
As a cardinal rule, you might think of yourself as a mirror. You can do your best to focus on what the person is saying, then reflect important details and emotions back to them, instead of focusing on your response.
The qualities of a good listener include compassion, empathy, and patience. You can try asking open-ended questions and avoiding giving unsolicited advice. If you must offer guidance, you can do so gently.
By practicing these tactics, you can learn how to be a better listener in no time.