Being a good listener is one of the best ways to enhance your relationships and truly get to know the people in your life.
Being a good listener is also one of those qualities everyone assumes they already have. The guy who never puts down his phone while you’re talking thinks he’s a good listener. That friend who always cuts you off mid-sentence thinks she’s a good listener. We’ve all experienced conversations like this. But is there more to active listening than simply not being rude? In the past, my rule of thumb was maintaining eye contact (to a “less than creepy” degree), nodding to show I understood, and responding with a similar circumstance I had been through. After doing some research however, I was stunned to find out that some of these are actually things to avoid. I was NOT being a good listener, and I’d have to do some work to improve.
Here are some things we can all do to become better listeners, truly be there for someone during a difficult time, and become that one person everyone feels good around.
1. Listen with a clear, open mind
This can be hard when we have experience with the topic. We have prior opinions and often automatically pre-judge before our friend has finished the first sentence. This can really hinder good listening. You aren’t truly hearing your friend’s thoughts and feelings about the topic; you’re hearing all the things you already know and have experienced about the topic. The key indicator that you’re pre-judging is when you decide what you’re going to say before your friend is done speaking. This isn’t as rude as interrupting, but it does rob you of the chance to learn new things about the topic and new facets of your friend’s personality regarding it. It can be difficult, but waiting to decide how you’re going to respond until your friend has truly finished is a valuable communication skill. Leslie Shore, author of Listening to Succeed, claims this is the most difficult component of effective listening. According to Shore, “When we begin working on a reply before the speaker is finished, we lose both the complete information that is being offered and an understanding of the kind of emotion present in the speaker’s delivery.”
2. Ask more questions
A good rule to live by is to ask more questions than you give answers. Some experts recommend striving for a 2:1 listening to talking ratio (bringing to mid the old maxim about why we have two ears and just one mouth), and asking open ended questions is a good way to get this. Be open to the possibility that you could be surprised. Go into the conversation with the intent of listening to learn, not simply listening to be polite. According to Laura Schneider of Harvard Business Review, “Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but comprehended it well enough to want additional information.”
3. Repeat back what was said
This is as simple as it sounds. When your friend has finished speaking, say something like, “So, if I’m hearing you right, what you’re saying is…” plus the main idea of whatever she’s talking about. This will not only help your friend feel understood, but offers her a chance to correct you if you did get some vital information wrong.
4. Don’t “match back”
This is the one I get stuck on. “Matching back” refers to listening to someone’s story and responding with a similar one of your own. Sometimes this can be helpful (as in, when a friend finds out she needs dental surgery and you happened to have had the same procedure done, reassuring her it wasn’t that bad and even giving her some tips one how to get through it). But these times are rare. Matching back often makes the other person feel unheard, and does nothing but make the conversation about you.
5. Don’t try to give advice
Matching back’s best friend is “giving unsolicited advice.” You should never give advice unless someone specifically asks you to. Many times, people just want to be heard, not to get a lecture or have you fix their problems for them. This can be tough, especially when you have gone through a similar situation and feel you have sage wisdom to give. Simply let your friend talk openly. “Advice giving usually doesn’t work, and often completely backfires,” says Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP, of Psychology Today. “Whenever a person tells us what to do and how to do it, we respond with defensive defiance because we want to maximize our personal freedom and decision-making.”
When someone feels truly heard, they not only feel understood, but actually valued. Active listening, especially when a friend is going through a distressing time, can be the best gift you can give them. It’s also the surest way of gaining a listening ear when you need one.