7 Ways to Be a Better Listener
If you’ve wondered whether you could be a better listener, the answer is almost certainly “yes”—especially if your frustrated spouse or a close friend have out-and-out told you as much before. Even if you think you’re pretty good at lending an ear or a shoulder to cry on, making sure the people in your life feel truly heard is something that everyone can improve upon. Whether you’re communicating in person, on Zoom, over text, or on the phone, staying receptive is a crucial part of any healthy relationship.
Marriage counselor Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby says that listening and understanding each other is necessary to stay in sync. In a marriage or in a platonic relationship, “problem-solving and meeting a partner’s needs requires having had the opportunity to absorb what your partner’s telling you they need, or hope for, from you.” Though that’s often easier said than done.
Being a “bad listener,” or repeatedly misunderstanding what the other person is saying, or appearing disinterested when you don’t mean to, can chip away at that person’s trust in your bond. Listening and responding with respect makes all the difference. Here are 7 ways to be a good a listener at work, to your spouse, to a friend, and anyone else who’s important to you.
Becoming a Better Listener
A participant in any conversation has two goals: first, to understand what the other person is communicating (both the overt meaning and the emotion behind it) and second, to convey interest, engagement, and caring to the other person. This second goal is not “merely” for the sake of kindness, which would be reason enough. If people do not feel listened to, they will cease to share information.
Getting good at active listening is a lifetime endeavor. However, even minor improvements can make a big difference in your listening effectiveness. Here’s a “cheat sheet” with nine helpful tips:
1. Repeat people’s last few words back to them.
If you remember nothing else, remember this simple practice that does so much. It makes the other person feel listened to, keeps you on track during the conversation, and provides a pause for both of you to gather thoughts or recover from an emotional reaction.
2. Don’t “put it in your own words” unless you need to.
Multiple studies have shown that direct repetition works, even though it may feel unnatural. Rephrasing what your interlocutor has said, however, can increase both emotional friction and the mental load on both parties. Use this tool only when you need to check your own comprehension — and say, explicitly, “I’m going to put this in my own words to make sure I understand.”
3. Offer nonverbal cues that you’re listening — but only if it comes naturally to you.
Eye contact, attentive posture, nodding and other nonverbal cues are important, but it’s hard to pay attention to someone’s words when you’re busy reminding yourself to make regular eye contact. If these sorts of behaviors would require a significant habit change, you can instead, let people know at the beginning of a conversation that you’re on the non-reactive side, and ask for their patience and understanding.
4. Pay attention to nonverbal cues.
Remember that active listening means paying attention to both the explicit and implicit information that you’re receiving in a conversation. Nonverbal cues, such as tone of voice, facial expression, and body language, are usually where the motivation and emotion behind the words is expressed.
5. Ask more questions than you think you need to.
This both improves the other person’s experience of feeling listened to, ensures that you fully understand their message, and can serve as a prompt to make sure important details aren’t overlooked.
6. Minimize distractions as much as possible.
You’ll want to avoid noise, interruptions, and other external distractions, but it’s important to minimize your internal distractions as well. If you are preoccupied with another topic, take time to re-center. If you know a conversation might be upsetting, calm yourself as much as possible before going in.
7. Acknowledge shortcomings.
If you know going into a conversation that you may be a subpar listener — because you’re exhausted from a dozen intense conversations earlier that day, unfamiliar with the topic under discussion, or any other reason — let the other person know right away. If you lose your footing during the conversation — a lapse of attention or comprehension — say you didn’t quite get it, and ask the person to repeat themselves.
8. Don’t rehearse your response while the other person is talking.
Take a brief pause after they finish speaking to compose your thoughts. This will require conscious effort! People think about four times faster than other people talk, so you’ve got spare brainpower when you’re a listener. Use it to stay focused and take in as much information as possible.
9. Monitor your emotions.
If you have an emotional reaction, slow the pace of the conversation. Do more repetition, pay attention to your breathing. You don’t want to respond in a way that will cause the other person to disengage. Nor — and this is a subtler thing to avoid — do you want to fall into the easy defense mechanism of simply tuning out what you don’t want to hear, or rushing to discount or argue it away.
To increase my own ability to listen, I started to observe and talk to good listeners. I discovered they are motivated to listen because they’ve learned that listening affects human behavior powerfully, and therefore they have patiently trained themselves to listen.
In a small notebook I began to record my own findings on the key role listening plays. First, I learned that listening affirms people. Indeed, it is one of the highest forms of affirmation. When we listen, we invite another person to exist. A boss who pauses at his secretary’s desk to ask her opinion, a mother who switches off the vacuum to listen to her child, a customer who stops to say “How are you?” to a sales clerk — each of these is acknowledging someone’s personhood.
Jesus did this often. In Mark 10, he was surrounded by a huge crowd as he left Jericho. Yet when he heard a blind beggar calling out to him, Scripture says, “Jesus stopped.” He called Bartimus to himself and listened to him. I learned secondly that we strengthen each other through good listening. Reading the gospels, one senses that even Jesus sought the encouragement that comes from sharing inner feelings with those who would listen.
In Prescriptions for a Tired Housewife, James Dobson observes, “For some strange reason, human beings . . . tolerate stress and pressure much more easily if at least one other person knows they are enduring it.” If we learn to ask perceptive questions and then wait for answers, we can be that “one other person” someone needs to share the burdens of his life.
Third, listening helps the speaker clarify his or her thoughts. Dawson Trotman often said, “Thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass over the lips or through the fingertips” — that is, by talking and by writing. As we give people an opportunity to talk, we help them sort out tangled thoughts. “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters,” Proverbs 20:5 reads, “but a man of understanding draws them out.”
Jesus drew people out. For example, he was not in a rush when he initiated dialogue with the woman at the well (John 4), knowing it would take time for her to shed surface layers of theological questions.
The same kind of unrushed talk-time helps me when I’m trying to sort out an issue I am struggling with. At my job, my supervisor has created an atmosphere in which I am free to talk with him at any time. Last week when I sensed pressure, we talked. In the process I found myself identifying the source of the pressure. Expressing feelings encouraged me to be honest with myself, something not always easy for me. His willingness to listen helped me to take an accurate reading of where I am and to commit myself to some corrections.
A good listener gives us the opportunity to express our views without being judged, interrupted, or redirected. We feel safe and unhurried, so we are more likely to express what is really going on within us.
The fourth point I discovered is that good listening improves the accuracy of our responses to what other people say. In Proverbs 25:11–12 (NASB) we read, “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances.” Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.
While I was in the earlier stages of “burnout,” and quietly fighting depression, I attended a retreat with other missionaries. A friend and I were making beds one morning, and I asked her, “How do you handle depression?”
I’ve learned since that many people are often in the same situation I was in that day: Behind their question is a statement, and behind the statement, hidden from view, is a feeling. When I asked my friend, “How do you handle depression?” I was trying to say, “I’m depressed.” And crouched behind that admission was a feeling even harder to express: “I’m afraid.” I needed to express all this, but couldn’t.
How does good listening help in such a situation? First, good listening encourages the speaker to continue talking. The first problem mentioned is rarely the real one. Only as the speaker continues does the conversation head toward root issues.
Listening long enough will help us hear the real statement or question and to uncover the feeling behind it. Unfortunately, many of us are too preoccupied with ourselves when we listen. Instead of concentrating on what is being said, we are busy either deciding what to say in response or mentally rejecting the other person’s point of view.
In Proverbs 18:13 we read, “He who answers before listening — that is his folly and his shame.” I cringe when I recall the times I’ve poured out advice only to discover I was answering a question that hadn’t been asked. Such mistakes are costly because they leave the questioner feeling misunderstood and apprehensive.
Also, good listening often defuses the emotions that are a part of the problem being discussed. Sometimes releasing these emotions is all that is needed to solve the problem. The speaker may neither want nor expect us to say anything in response.
How to Improve
One of the best ways to learn to listen is to study the life of Jesus. Read through the gospels and watch this masterful teacher affirm people, draw them out, and accurately speak to their real needs. Jesus motivates us to listen better.
Second, I’ve stopped thinking of listening as only a passive activity. “Listening,” says former Senator S.I. Hayakawa of California, “requires entering actively and imaginatively into another person’s situation and trying to understand a frame of reference different from your own.” To do this means fighting distractions, and forcing myself to ask, “What is this person saying to me? What does he or she mean?” I don’t want to be like the fool in Proverbs 18:2, who “takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (RSV).
Third, I consciously withdraw so as to create space for another to open up and talk. In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen quotes James Hillman, director of studies at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland: “For the other person to open and talk requires a withdrawal of the counselor. I must withdraw to make room for the other. This withdrawal, rather than going-out-to-meet the other, is an intense act of concentration.”
After listening I used to make comments such as, “I know just how you feel.” Then I would recount something similar that had happened to me. Sometimes my stories helped, but many times they were just a distraction. I’m learning to put myself aside when I listen.
Fourth, I put more emphasis on affirmation than on answers. When I listened in the past I had a compulsion to rush in and “fix things,” as if the other person were asking me to “do something.” I’m learning that, although there are times where I need to give an answer or help direct someone, many times God simply wants to use me as a channel of his affirming love as I listen with compassion and understanding. As the other person finds security in this acceptance, he begins to believe God loves him. In this atmosphere of affirmation, God is able to work with this person, and the results are much better than anything my feeble tinkering could do.
In order to improve, I’ve asked those I work with to help me by pointing out times when I fail to listen. I also use the time driving home from work to review the day. I think back through my encounters with others at the office, over the phone, at lunch. I make mental notes of situations I bungled, times when I failed to listen. I relive conversations and mentally phrase the questions I wish I had asked, the responses I wish I had given. This mental practice prepares me for the next time.
It takes time and practice to learn to listen. And it takes a caring heart. A fourth-grade teacher once asked her class, “What is listening?” After a few moments of silence, one little girl raised her hand. “Listening,” she said, “is wanting to hear.”