Many of us think we’re good listeners. People come to us to talk about the problems in their lives and we share with them all of the advice, amazing experience we have around this topic and how we can help them sort out the issue.
We leave the conversation feeling really good. How wise we are. How knowledgable. How good we were at helping out that person.
But how did the other person feel?
Likely they came away feeling not so great. You see the thing is with listening, it’s a skill. A skill that most of us were never taught and most of us are still not aware that the way we are listening is not supportive to the person we’re trying to help.
The thing is, when we give unsolicited advice or opinions, what we are indirectly saying is ‘you are not capable of sorting this out yourself’. What we are communicating is that their problem is uncomfortable for us to listen to. We need to fix it. Change it. DO something. If there is emotion involved we may even say to them ‘don’t cry’, ‘don’t get angry’, ‘don’t worry’. What we are indirectly saying here is that your emotions make me feel uncomfortable and I want you to stop them. Or, your emotions are unwelcome here, please stop.
To the person speaking this feels invalidating.
We feel we are being told that we are ‘wrong’. That we are in some way ‘too much’ - that our emotions and our experience are too much for the other person to handle.
We feel we are being told we are ‘not enough’ - we aren’t capable and able to be with our own experience and it needs to be taken away or ‘corrected’.
When we try and help in this way what we are in fact doing is pushing the other person away. We are encouraging them to shut down. Close up. Go within.
Good listening skills foster meaningful connections whether in personal relationships, professional settings or even in everyday interactions.
It can be difficult to do. Even I can find myself sometimes jumping in to ‘help’, especially with friends. So I wanted to share with you a reminder to myself, but also an explanation of how to effectively listen to people and how to develop this skill.
Give your full attention
It’s really easy to be distracted when someone is talking. Maybe we are on a video call and busy doing other things and moving around while the person is talking, maybe face-to-face we find ourselves glancing at our phones or distracted by what is going on around us. So the first important step is to make a conscious effort to put to one side and distractions, maintain eye contact and show you are fully present.
When we listen to other people talk, immediately our minds can jump into thoughts of what they should have done, could do and what you would do. We are making judgements around what they are saying. The invitation here is to be receptive to their ideas, perspective and emotions. Setting aside any personal ideas you have or not making anything black/white right/wrong you can create a space for genuine understanding and connection.
Empathy is generally seen as being able to understand and share the feelings of another person. It’s about not just understanding what someone is saying but also recognising the emotions behind them. Reflecting on the speaker’s perspective with phrases such as ‘that sounds difficult’, ‘how upsetting’ etc. validating their feelings and responding to what they are saying with a genuine understanding of what is happening for them.
Ask open-ended questions
Showing curiosity about someone’s experience and how they feel about the situation they’re sharing encourage a deeper understanding for you around their perspective. Open-ended questions can invite the speaker to share more about their thoughts and emotions. Open-ended questions help the speaker to talk more about their experience and shows you are interested in what they are saying. Open-ended questions sound like, ‘how did that make you feel?’, ‘what happened next?’, ‘what are you going to do now?’
Mirroring is a term used often in the world of coaching and therapy, it basically means summarising what someone has said and repeating it back to them. Mirroring during a conversation shows that you are actively engaged in what the person is telling you. Asking clarifying questions shows that you are trying to accurately understand what they are saying. It demonstrates your commitment to understanding them but also helps to avoid any misunderstandings. Also for the person speaking, hearing back what they have said gives them an opportunity to reflect further on what they’ve said and understand themselves at a deeper level.
I’ll be honest and say I really struggle with this one and tend to want to ask more questions before the person has finished! Try to resist the urge to interrupt and finish the speaker’s sentence. Give them time and space to express themselves fully. When you can be patient it creates an environment where the person with feel valued and respected.
Using body language such as nodding, smiling, keeping an open posture shows you are listening. Non-verbal cues help to complement your verbal understanding of their situation.
It’s really tempting when you are listening to someone to do something else at the same time, however it can affect how well you can actively listen and engage in the conversation. Let the person understand from your undivided attention that what they are saying is important.
Are there any other things that you would say are important to do or not to do when listening to another person talking?
When have you felt fully understood and listened to and what was the person doing?
Learning to listen well is a skill that you can develop and get better at over time - it takes practice. The art of listening will help to strengthen your relationship, improve communication and build connections that are deeper and more emotionally intimate.
Carla Crivaro is a trauma-informed and certified Sex, Love & Relationship Coach, she works with men and women internationally to reach their goals in delicious sex, profound love and authentic relationships. Carla helps men and women understand themselves and each other, sexually and relationally, in and out of the bedroom. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other resources which are supportive around this topic are: