Communication is an essential part of being human.
Each and every day we are required to communicate with others, and we do this using many different methods – particularly through voice and tone, and actions and expressions.
To communicate effectively with one another, it is imperative that we are good listeners, too. Good listeners help us to feel validated and known, and help in building a strong relationship.
‘Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.’
– Stephen R. Covey, American educator, author, businessman and keynote speaker
So, what is a good listener? And how can we improve our listening skills?
It takes a lot of skill and practice to be a good listener. Perhaps the first step in becoming a good listener is to practice active listening.
Active listening is a technique that requires the listener to place their full attention on the speaker, to focus on understanding both their words and their feelings, and to show the speaker that what they are saying matters.
To be an active listener, it is important that you look and sound interested in what the other person is saying. This means an active listener will:
- Make eye contact with the person speaking
- Face the person speaking, and use facial expressions and body language/position that indicates attentiveness, not boredom
- Nod encouragingly throughout the conversation to show interest and understanding
- Use verbal cues, saying things like “yes” and “uh-huh” to encourage the person to continue
It’s also important that an active listener listens more than talks. This means that they must try not to interrupt or finish sentences, and hold back initial reactions and thoughts until they fully understand the speaker’s perspective.
An active listener will also avoid speaking about their own related experiences, but will instead ask open-ended questions when the speaker pauses. For example: “Tell me more about how that makes you feel” or “What concerns you about that?”
It is important that you listen out for how the person is feeling and thinking, not just the content of what they are saying.
Here’s a scenario where active listening could come into play, and examples of non-active listening.
Imagine your partner arrives home from work, and you are sitting watching TV. You partner walks into the room, and mentions that they had a horrible day - their manager criticized their messy desk in front of everyone in the office.
A non-active listener may continue to watch the TV and make a remark such as:
- “Well, you are messy” or
- “My boss told me off the other day too” or
- “What on earth do you have on your desk?”
These responses do not have the aim of gaining a better understanding of what the partner has said; they interrupt the partner and do not encourage them to speak further about the issue and how it made them feel; and they go against the partner’s point of view, making them feel alone and further criticized.
Imagine the scenario again. Your partner walks into the room and mentions that their manager criticized them in front of everyone, so you turn to face them and turn the volume down on the TV.
You may then respond with:
- “How did you feel?” or
- “What was that like for you?” or
- “Tell me more about it?”
To show your interest in the conversation, you may stand up to approach your partner, or invite them to sit down and get comfortable. These small actions also play a large part in the process of active listening.
‘We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.’
– Carl Rogers, American psychologist and one of the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology.
Reflective / Empathetic listening
Reflective or empathetic listening takes listening to the next level, focusing more on the speaker’s emotions and empathising with their feelings on a greater level.
A reflective listener will still do the things an active listener does, but they will also use techniques that are used in a counselling setting – having less of a focus on content but more so on feelings.
One of the techniques used by a reflective listener is to restate what you believe the speaker has said, to confirm your understanding, and to reflect back their feelings by asking questions (rather than making statements).
This can be done using effective tone of voice; validating that you’ve heard them and combining it into a question - “That sounds like it was really embarrassing?”
A reflective listener will also focus on responding to the conversation, rather than leading it. Instead of making suggestions and asking the speaker about what you are interested it, be led by the speaker’s frame of reference and what they are focusing on.
For example, in the situation where you are listening to someone discuss a problem they encountered, instead of saying something like “Maybe you should think about confronting that person” you might say “So you felt really down for the rest of the day?”
Sometimes people don’t need or aren’t looking for a solution to their problem, but instead are only seeking to be heard.
In this case, you could say things like “I really get why you would have felt that way - it makes total sense” or “I’m so sorry that that happened for you.” This could lead to the end of the conversation, or they may wish to continue discussing it – either now or at a later time.
The purpose of listening, and more specifically reflective listening, is to understand a person’s feelings and encourage them to discuss these feelings. Reflective listening can also be used when a person is not yet sure about their feelings, but talking about them (and being listened to) can help identify emotions and alleviate stress or worry.
So what happens after the listening phase?
Once we truly understand a person’s feelings and point of view, it then enables us to take the next step – which might be to ask them if they would like any suggestions or thoughts on possible action to take.
But keep in mind, people can often come up with their own solutions to their problems once their feelings and experiences have been truly heard.
If the person does ask for help or advice, it is at this point when we can lead the conversation and speak from our own frame of reference, while still considering the other person’s.
Suggestions like “Maybe you should try this …” or “Have a think about …” can be used, and you can discuss your own thoughts and reasoning behind them.
This article was written with the support of Mary Brown, Relationship Counsellor and Educator at CatholicCare, and using resources by JoAnne Yates, Professor of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.