6 Tips to Make You a Better Listener
Think about the last time you had a conversation with someone who really focused on you and what you were saying. Didn't it feel great to be heard? Now consider your last few conversations with friends, family, or colleagues. Were you really paying attention or were you scrolling through your social feed, texting, or thinking about what you'd say next?
Conversation is a two-way street. We all want to be heard, but often we forget to really listen. Instead our attention is sidetracked. We surf the web during phone calls with our best friends or scan through work emails while having dinner with our parents.
“It’s easy to be distracted in today’s world,” says Natalie Bernstein, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist in Pittsburgh. But active listening involves giving your dedicated attention to the other person, focusing on understanding their message.
If you’re having conflict or tension in your relationships, or just want to strengthen your bond, boosting your active listening skills may be a good place to start.
“Being a good listener is how we show people we care. As humans, we crave connection and feeling understood,” Bernstein says. “Through listening, we can move toward building deeper relationships.”
Follow these tips to help develop your active listening skills.
Pause Your Problem Solving
As you listen, you may be tempted to offer solutions and opinions. “It’s a natural instinct since we don’t like to see suffering,” says M. Stefanie Smith, licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of The Couch in Los Gatos, California.
Her advice? Don’t. “You’re not there to fix how the other person is feeling. Allow them to feel it,” Smith says.
There are ways to avoid interrupting that respect the other person and make them feel heard. “Following up with a quick, ‘Did you want to say more about that before I respond?’ is a way to demonstrate that you are in this situation with them and are wanting them to know their words are valuable,” Bernstein says.
Ask Questions to Go Deeper
Instead of offering solutions, try asking questions to help you better understand the other person’s feelings or meaning. This can help people feel more emotionally supported.
Though your questions should prompt the other person to provide more information, it shouldn't feel like a courtroom interrogation, says Heidi Dalzell, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Newtown, Pennsylvania. “That format isn’t conducive to interpersonal interaction,” she says.
Instead, aim for questions that aid your understanding. “Good active listeners reflect and ask for clarification,” says Ilene Kaskel, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Boca Raton, Florida.
According to Dalzell, you may want to ask, “So, what I hear you saying is ________. Did I understand correctly?” This openness allows others to offer additional information or clarification, she says.
Use Attentive Body Language
Show interest in your counterpart. “Lean in close to the person, turn your body toward them, and look at them directly when they're speaking,” Bernstein says. “All this demonstrates openness and interest.”
Look for Their Nonverbal Cues
Listening isn’t just about hearing the words that are spoken. It’s also about noting what the speaker is doing. See if they’re tapping their foot. Observe their facial expressions, Dalzell says. Notice if they smile, frown, sigh, look confused or skeptical, fold their arms or roll their eyes.
”Nonverbals can be helpful in noting incongruent communication, where messaging and nonverbals do not mesh,” says Dalzell. For instance, someone may say “I’m fine,” while they’re visibly upset. You might lose a lot of meaning if you weren’t also paying attention to their body language.
Aim to be fully present and focused on the speaker. Put your phone away, turn off the TV, and set your computer aside. These actions show that you’re engaged and focused.
Be Honest If Your Mind Is Busy
Notice any internal distractions, as well. Is your mind wandering? Are you able to concentrate on what’s in front of you? “If you’re at a place or time where you have stressors, it can be distracting,” says Kaskel. “You might need to address your emotional issues so you can be present for the speaker. It takes introspection to be aware of what you’re going through.”
When someone close to you wants to talk, check in with whether you have the time and emotional energy to fully listen, says Pauline Peck, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Santa Barbara, California. If you don't, set up another time you can be more fully present.
Bernstein suggests saying something like, “I really want to listen, but I just need five minutes to respond to some emails and then you can have my full attention. Would that be ok?"
Overall, listening is a skill that takes time and practice. And sometimes, things can get in the way. “Good listening requires us to have good emotional regulation, distress tolerance, mindfulness, and other skills,” Peck says. If you find that listening is a struggle for you, working with a mental health professional can help you develop the skills needed to be a better listener to those around you.
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