“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” ~Ernest Hemmingway
I can’t count the amount of times I’ve heard people devalue the contribution of listening, be it to a friend, colleague, partner or other family member. The comment I often hear is “I just wish I could do something.” My response is, “You are.”
There are a number of definitions of listening available in print or online. My favourite, from writer Richard Nordquist suggests that listening is “The active process of receiving and responding to spoken (and sometimes unspoken) messages.”
Before getting to the meat and potatoes of how to be a better listener, let’s look at some listening myths and facts.
Myths and Facts
Myth: Listening is a passive endeavour; we are merely blank slates or receptacles for information.
Fact: When we truly listen, we focus on and attempt to comprehend what is being expressed. This is an active process!
Myth: We listen solely with our ears.
Fact: Listening also involves our powers of observation, and in some cases, touch and smell.
Myth: Listening is just about hearing words.
Fact: How words are being expressed is often just as important as the words that are chosen. Tone of voice is huge, as is body language, eye contact and other forms of non-verbal communication.
Myth: Counsellors, therapists or other helping professionals are the best listeners.
Fact: Counsellors may have had more training, but there is tremendous value when someone important to you truly listens to what you are saying.
Myth: Listening is a time and energy suck.
Fact: Not if you choose your friends wisely. And when you can’t choose other relationships such as family members or co- workers, it’s important to know your limits. Adopting healthy emotional boundaries is key!
Myth: Listening diminishes our power in relationships. We never will get our point across.
Fact: We make our point a lot more effectively when we are engaged, when we understand what is being discussed. Otherwise, we risk coming across as a blowhard.
How to Be a Better Listener
- Prioritize understanding over advice. Offering another the opportunity to express an emotional burden, explain a situation, or speak about something close to their heart is a gift. Often the value for the other party is in the expression of what is on his or her mind. Advice is sometimes warranted, especially if requested, but can feel abrupt if it is offered prematurely and/or if one’s understanding of the situation is incomplete.
- Take care of your own emotional needs. It’s difficult to listen when one is consumed with one’s own emotional burden or stress. Come back when you can truly be emotionally present.
- Set the scene. Turn off all devices, television, music etc. No one feels like a priority to you if your attention is elsewhere.
- Be rested. Listening is much easier when you are.
- Time it right. Choose a time when you’re less likely to be interrupted and are not occupied with something else. Don’t commit to listening if you are in a hurry or don’t otherwise have the time.
- Ask questions. Showing appropriate curiosity can help you to feel more engaged in what is being said and the other person feels like their thoughts and or feelings are valued by you. Asking clarifying questions also enriches our understanding of what is being expressed.
- Make the occasional rephrasing comment. Your feedback, if accurate, shows that you were listening. For example, “It sounds like you were really bummed out when Mary failed to show at the game.”
- When your mind wanders off, bring it back. Repeat as needed. People’s minds can drift off if you’re tired, preoccupied, bored, or for a host of other reasons. You may need to limit the time you are available to listen.
- Remember the power of nonverbal communication in conveying listening: eye contact, nodding, an open posture, even “mm-hmm.”
- Don’t pretend to listen. This is a habit some of us get into if we think we can get away with it, such as when we’re on the phone. We may doodle, surf the Internet, do our nails or text at the same time. People know when you’re not listening.
- Avoid platitudes. Examples include, “I understand,” “If there’s anything I can do…”, “I know exactly how you’re feeling.” Anything that feels like a cliche probably is.
- Don’t derail the conversation by launching into a soliloquy about yourself or someone else you know. This can sometimes happen when we over-relate to what someone is saying. Unfortunately, this can have the unintended effect of making the other feel that what they are saying is not important to you.
- Avoid playing armchair psychologist. It’s condescending.
- If you have privilege, whether it be white privilege, financial privilege, gender privilege, body privilege or any other form of privilege, you are not in a position to give advice to people who do not share in these privileges.
- Listening when you’re overwhelmed with emotion is next to useless. Heated arguments are a particularly poor time to try to listen. Take a break and come back to the conversation when you’re calm.
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