Are You a Good Listener?
You probably think you are. After all, listening is easy, right? As long as you keep nodding, don’t interrupt, and can repeat what the other person said, you’re a good listener…right?
Well, not exactly.
Although most of us would say we’re great listeners (just like we’d say we’re great drivers), we tend to underestimate just how active listening can be. It’s more than just “mmhm-ing” at the right time— it’s really about making the other person feel safe and comfortable. If they can walk away from the conversation feeling even a little bit better than before, you’ve done your job.
If you think about it, you can probably identify the bad listeners in your life. There’s a reason why you choose to confide in some people, but leave others in the dark. Nobody likes talking to the guy who interrupts halfway to lecture you or the girl who’s only interested in talking about herself. It’s easy to recognize bad listeners, but what traits make a good listener?
Researchers Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of Harvard Business Review sought to answer that question by conducting a study with 3,492 participants. They found that, in order to be a good listener, you need to:
Create a safe environment to discuss personal and emotional issues
Not every conversation you have with someone requires a safe environment. When I call my mom to ask if I’m overcooking a batch of potatoes, neither of us require a safe, comfortable environment to talk about it.
But, if you know that you’re about to discuss a personal or emotional topic with someone, you should try to create a safe environment that will make the other person feel comfortable — at least, as much as you are able to:
- Go somewhere private where you won’t be overheard.
- Don’t include other people in the conversation unless the person you’re talking to requests them to be there.
- Make sure it’s a comfortable environment. (Nobody wants to have a heart-to-heart on the patio when it’s freezing or blistering hot out.)
You won’t always have the option to create an optimum safe environment (nor will it always be needed), but the important thing is to make sure you are both comfortable.
Get rid of distractions around you
This one hits close to home for me. I can’t stand trying to talk to someone when their eyes are glued to a screen. It doesn’t even matter if they’re actually listening — it still makes me feel like my words are falling on deaf ears.
I’m not alone in this. Zenger and Folkman found that people who were distracted while talking to someone were generally perceived as bad listeners, and it even influenced the other person’s attitude.
Bottom-line, when someone’s trying to speak with you, get rid of the distractions. Turn off the TV, put down the phone, close the book — or temporarily pause whatever you’re doing if you can. There will obviously be times when distractions are too important for us to just “stop” — like if you’re breastfeeding a baby or making an urgent phone call — and that’s understandable.
If that is the case, I recommend saying something along the lines of: “Hey, I’m really busy at the moment, but I’d like to continue this conversation. Can we speak about this when I’m done?”
There’s really only a few ways to immediately get perceived as a bad listener, and being noticeably distracted by something else is one of them. Not only does it make the other person feel ignored, but they’re a lot less likely to confide in you in the future.
Seek to understand what is being said to you
This is the part where learning really starts to become an active process. Most of the time, people don’t just want someone to nod along or “mmhm” — they want someone who asks questions and tries to understand the issue at hand.
You don’t want to become so eager that you’re cutting the other person off, but asking a question every once and awhile is a great way to show you’re attentive.
Even if you understand what you’re hearing, you can still ask questions. The easiest question to ask — if you can’t think of any on your own — is a simple re-statement. Let me show you what I’m talking about:
Let’s say that I’m complaining to you about my boss. I tell you that she’s cutting back my hours, and won’t give me a reason why.
A question of re-statement might be, “Oh, man. She’s really cutting back your hours?” Even though you’re only restating what I’ve just told you, it affirms that you’re listening to what I’m saying, and haven’t tuned out.
The point here isn’t that you have to ask questions or follow a script — it’s really only to try and understand what the other person is saying. When you do that, questions and responses come easily.
Pick up on nonverbal cues — like gestures or facial expressions
When we listen to people, we’re often not just listening to what’s coming out of their mouth. We’re also listening to their faces and bodies.
Subtle body language signals can indicate if someone is happy, sad or angry:
- Someone who crosses their arms and leans back in their seat is likely defensive.
- Avoiding eye-contact can be a sign of shame or insecurity, and it would be a good idea to reassure the person that it’s okay to confess their feelings.
- When someone gestures wildly with their hands, they are probably very passionate about the topic they’re speaking of.
Body language can vary from person to person so the goal isn’t to necessarily memorize a list of gestures and make assumptions whenever you see one. Most of the time, we subconsciously analyze nonverbal cues anyway — so all you need to do is pay attention, and listen to your gut.
Empathize and validate the speaker’s feelings
When we confide in people, we might be looking for advice — but we’re also looking for empathy too. We complain about our bosses to vent, but also because we want someone to say, “Yeah, you’re right, that sucks. I can understand why you’re so frustrated.”
Not all conversations require us to empathize, but when someone is talking about a personal issue, good listeners are able to empathize.
Obviously, some things are easier to empathize with than others. It’s easy to empathize with the boy who just lost his dad, but maybe harder to empathize with the boy who hasn’t spoken to his dad in years.
The key to empathy is asking yourself: what if I was in that situation?
You might immediately think, “Well, if that was me, I would never do that,” but keep in mind that most situations get a lot messier when emotions are involved. It’s easy to formulate the “perfect” solution when you’re on the outside looking in.
Once you empathize, you can, if it’s needed, validate the speaker’s feelings. Comments like, “I understand why you’re upset,” or even, “Geez, I’m sorry that happened to you,” can make the other person feel understood.
When it comes to empathy, there will always “what if” scenarios. What if the other person is being racist or homophobic? Am I expected to empathize still?
Keep in mind that you can empathize and still disagree with someone. Being empathetic doesn’t mean you can’t voice your disagreement. Statements like, “I know that’s how you feel, but I don’t feel the same way,” or, “We all have opinions, and honestly, I really think you’re completely off kilter here,” voice disagreement, but don’t turn the discussion into a shouting match.
Empathy is not always easy — especially if we disagree with the speaker — but it is an essential factor in emotional and personal conversations.
Clarify your assumptions and offer suggestions
One of my biggest problems as a listener has been how I give advice. I tend to, after the person stops speaking, immediately interject a solution or relate it back to a situation I dealt with. I think I’m helping, but the other person feels blown off and annoyed.
There’s a way to suggest advice without appearing like an actor in an infomercial. (“Do you experience abandonment issues? OxyClean will clear that right up!”)
Throughout the conversations, suggestions that are sprinkled in as questions — along with a dash of empathy and validation — will relay your opinion without making the other person feel like they’re hearing a sales pitch.
You should also careful about relating someone else’s problems back to you. Including your own similar experiences is a natural part of a conversation, and generally a good thing. But, immediately talking about yourself without acknowledging the other person will make you appear like you don’t care. It’s perfectly fine to talk about your own life but make sure you apply the other listening skills first.
Be tactful about what life experiences you share. If your friend says, “My mom died of cancer,” you don’t want the first words out of your mouth to be, “Oh, I understand exactly how you feel. My sister’s dog died of cancer.”
Remember, empathy — you wouldn’t want someone to say that to you, right?
I don’t mean to make it sound you aren’t allowed to add input during a conversation, but a good listener is subtle about it. If you think you understand what you’re hearing but aren’t quite sure, you can always clarify your assumptions. Asking, “So, what I think you’re saying is this, and personally, my take on this is that you should…” is a great way to offer a suggestion, but also let the other person know you’ve been paying attention.
Good listening requires the skills listed above, but it’s also just about a general awareness of yourself and other people’s feelings. Consider how the good and bad listeners in your life act in conversations. And, as I’ve said, not every conversation requires all of these skills. The small-talk you make with co-workers won’t require as much of your listening skills as a deeply personal discussion with a friend.
When the other person can walk away from the conversation feeling better (or at least like they were given insight), you’ll know that you’re a good listener.