Think Simple Now — a moment of clarity

What should I do with my life? Click here.

4 Things Good Listeners Do

Photo by Jan Fidler
One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. ~Bryant H. McGill

Some acquaintances and I were hiking together in a new spot. Everywhere we turned there were things to behold — falcons perched, coyotes hunting, altars built — it was an experience I can’t wait to repeat.

Since we were all fairly new friends, we all had plenty to tell each other. There was very little silence, even in such an awe-inspiring place. When I got home I realized that I didn’t remember a lot of what was said. I was embarrassed to admit it, but it seemed I had forgotten to listen.

I’ve been told many times that I’m a good listener; in fact, many people open up to me for just that reason. Maybe it was because I was tired, or maybe I was just out of practice (working alone will do that to you) but I decided to revisit some of the things I draw on to listen well. Here are four tips on how to listen:

1. Be Present

Distractions are an omnipresent part of our day. Try to think of the last time only one thing was vying for your attention. Even in your sleep you dream while your body rests!

What makes someone an excellent listener is their ability to tune out all that other stuff and really hear what the other person has to say. Quiet your mind and focus on the person speaking. If you’re on the phone, sit down; close your eyes and imagine the words leaving your friend’s mouth.

If you’re sitting next to each other, make eye contact and keep it. I find that if I look around, my ears will suddenly be interested in eavesdropping on a neighboring conversation or my eyes will fall on a newspaper headline. It seems no matter where you are there is something to pull you out of the moment, so focus on the person speaking.

When we’re present, you can observe more than just the words that a person is saying. You can see their expressions, hear the intonations and feel the emotions behind the sound. Listening is something that involves more than just one of our five senses — it is a visceral experience.

2. Ask Questions

I learned this skill from one of my dear friends. When I told her a story, she would ask for details or confirm a fact. For instance, if I spoke about a friend Nicole I was going to visit and she hadn’t met her, she would ask, “Now is that the person you met at your old newspaper job?”

It seems simple enough, but it helps the other person feel heard, and it gives you a much more complete picture of a person’s life. It adds depth to the words they speak. Suddenly the name Nicole isn’t just a word; she’s attached to many more memories and has a life of her own. By adding that dimension, details become easier to remember and you become a better listener.

Another thing questions can do is help you avoid judgment. So many times I’d catch myself saying “I don’t know what I think about that,” when I didn’t agree with a situation or idea someone was relaying to me. But that isn’t the point, is it?

The point is to find out what the person you’re listening to thinks about that. So ask, “What do you think about that?” It’s better than judging someone else, especially when you’re supposed to be listening.

3. Let Go of Ego

Speaking of judgment, the ego plays a big part in making those big, sweeping assessments that aren’t called for when you’re trying to help someone be heard. It also desperately wants to be the center of attention. For these reasons, it’s best to be aware when your ego shows up and then keep it in check.

One of the biggest ego problems I have is I want to swing the conversation back to something of mine. My friends. My cooking. Me, me, me! So when there’s a pause in the conversation, I let my first reaction play out in my head. Almost always it’s to tell a story of mine that is related, but beyond that is unimportant to the conversation.

Other ways an ego can play out is the desire to tell a story that is similar and in your opinion more impressive. I’ve even heard people say “I can beat that,” after someone else finishes speaking. The ego also likes to plan out what it’ll say before a person finishes speaking.

Play out your reaction for one second before you say anything with the awareness that your ego is probably trying to take control. Take a breath and consider what’s really important in the conversation — making sure the person speaking feels heard.

4. Be Aware of What They Want

When I was younger I constantly gave advice. Anyone who spoke to me about a problem could be sure to expect my expert opinion on what they should do, whether they wanted it or not.

Then someone said to me, “I just want to vent about this. I just need you to listen.” It was like a light bulb went off in my brain. Of course not everyone needed to be told what to do. In fact, most people don’t want to be told what to do.

When you’re listening to someone, try to ascertain what they want from you. Are you just a shoulder to cry on or are they asking for your advice? Is this something they want kept secret? Perhaps you know someone who could relate. Would they be open to chatting with others?

Be sensitive to all of this. If you’re not sure, ask. No one’s ever taken offense when I say, “Are you open to advice or are you more interested in just sharing with me?” In fact, most people are grateful.

Listening is a skill that takes a lifetime to develop. The more you practice, the more enjoyable it becomes. And even when you get good at it, there are always new things to learn.

Pay attention to how other people listen to you. What do you like? Can you implement that into your own listening style?

I’d love to learn from you. What’s your best piece of advice for being a good listener?

Before you go: please share this story on Facebook, RT on Twitter. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Subscribe to receive email updates. Thank you for your support!
Connect with TSN Facebook Twitter Google+ Pinterest Instagram RSS
About the author

Rebecca is a fierce optimist who believes in the power of making life happen. Magic and creativity are her latest pursuits, along with exploring her new home, Germany. Read her blog, follow her on Facebook and Twitter for her latest enthusiastic (and sometimes witty) remarks. Check out her new book, Change is Easy & Other Novel Concepts: Short Essays on Changing Your Life, One Step at a Time.

Love this article? Sign up for weekly updates!

Think Simple Now delivers weekly self-reflective, inspiring stories from real people. Join our empowering community by entering your email address below.

15 thoughts on 4 Things Good Listeners Do

  1. Lori Carter

    I’ve learned there are very few good listeners out there. Everyone wants to be heard, I guess. Once I was on the phone listening to a man talk. (I was at work, and this was work related.) He talked and I listened. Finally he said ‘hello? are you there?’ I said I’m listening to you. New concept, I guess.

    • Listening is definitely a special skill, I will agree. I find that phone conversations can be difficult because you can’t engage in active listening in the same way you would in a face-to-face conversation.

  2. Kevin Malone

    Well, as I said before in a related article, I think we live in a society that places a lot of emphasis on being heard, but not on hearing.

    I am thinking specifically of school, where instructors like to remind students to ‘participate,’ which in this case is often defined as ‘talking,’ or what I see as more along the lines of ‘Jeopardy’ rather than discussion (i.e., how many right answers can you give, rather than how deep a conversation can you contribute to).

    And speaking of contributing to a discussion or participating, how can one add to the contributions of others if they are too busy thinking of what else to say rather than listening to what others are saying?

    Instructors do not often emphasize (or at all, in my personal experience) that listening is part of participation.

    After all, as any interpersonal communication instructor will tell you, participation or communication is a two-way street.

    If someone does not talk much, it is assumed that they have no interest in participating, but no thought is given to whether that person is considering what you and others are saying. When I get up and give a presentation in class without any show of shyness, other students are shocked: since I did not talk much, it was assumed that communicating was something I must have trouble with. And I am not simply assuming this was the response: other students would come up to me afterward and describe that shock.

    As a final part of my rambling, I recall going to the campus philosophy club. There is one student who seems good hearted as can be, and indeed I have no doubt he is. When it was just him and me in the room I was able to respond to him, even as I noticed he would be most eager to interject mid-sentence, and go on for a long while. Such communication between two temperaments became impossible, however, when there were several more people: the ‘loudest’ personalities dominated the discussion, and whenever I attempted to join, I was cut out before I could begin. That is one reason I preferred ‘structured’ discussion some times, rather than everyone all talking whenever they feel like it.

    • Thanks for your comment Kevin. I completely agree with what you’re saying about participation in group discussions in school. It can be difficult to have proper discussions and meaningful dialogue when you’re simply graded on talking. It’s too bad.

    • Kevin Malone

      Thank you for the reply.

      If Susan Cain, author of “Quiet,” is accurate, it seems I might expect more of the same if I go to business school; i.e., from her characterization, seems getting a word in, regardless of knowledge on the topic, is encouraged above other aspects of “participation.” In other words, being assertive is valued more highly than being cooperative.

    • I have heard about that book. One of these days I’ll read it. I think that more and more business leaders are understanding the value of introverts. Hopefully business schools will soon follow.

  3. I agree, Rebecca, listening is definitely a learned skill. I find that most people listen with the intent to speak next versus simply being present for the conversation. Thanks for your post!

  4. Rebecca,

    Not only do I think listening is a skill but it is also good manners to listen to someone who is talking to you.

    OK, if you don’t like what they are saying you can find an excuse to end the conversation but show some respect.

    I think I am a good listener and ask questions or paraphrase so that people know I am listening.

    The problem comes sometimes when people know you are a good listener (the same people who don’t listen themselves) proceed to bore the pants off you!

    • Hahaha Frank! Thanks for your comment. I can agree with you about being a good listener and having people take advantage of that. I guess we just need to take your advice and find an excuse to end the conversation if we’re bored of feel taken advantage of.

  5. Hey Rebecca, I am a listener, generally able to block everything else around me and focus in. I find it one of my best skills. Your advise on asking questions is great, that is exactly what needs to happen. It clarifies things, it highlights listening and it shows interest. People respond well when they know we are really listening. Because most people don’t like to listen they like to be at the centre of it all. You are so right about the me, me, me factor. I call those the talkers, they don’t want to hear they just want to talk about themselves. In small doses this is fine, but when you have someone like this dominate a conversation over lunch or an entire afternoon, it can be rather draining. The comparer who talks of similarities. I find that people do find it a competition sometimes but most of the time, I find one conversation reminds someone of something similar and they get excited and involved and cant wait to share their story. It can appear as competition but if they could stop mid sentence and say, “that story was great and it reminds me of this situation and I am so excited you bought that up” we would find that most are just vibrating of each other. And then you have those that cut you off while mid sentence. I am so over this type, cut me off and I don’t even bother anymore. Let them talk you miss out on me. I am proud to be silenced and stop right there, because its the height of rudeness to do it without even acknowledging they did it. Not wasting my time on that. And generally they don’t care too much anyway so I don’t bother. By listening we gain so much. Thanks for a great post.

    • I agree that interrupters are really tough people to spend time with. I think it’s a bad habit that some people pick up. I used to stay silent like you did, but now I say something after they finish their story like, “You just interrupted me.” After a few times of pointing that out, I find that some of these folks at least start to notice they’re doing it, apologize and even begin to stop the habit :) I guess it depends on the people tho. Glad you enjoyed my post. Thanks for the comment!

    • Hey Rebecca,

      Thanks for responding to my comment. I like that you pull people up. It was only when a friend of mine years ago, would pull me that I realised I was doing it. And it was because of her that change was made. If I ever do it now (I am quick to apologise and give the floor back to them). I had no idea I was doing it. This friend was patient with me and would let me finish and then say – as I was saying. At first I felt a little embarrassed and then I made sure I did something about it, because I did not like that I was doing it. Now you have made me think, maybe it is a good idea to prompt people, because it did create change in me. Well when I am bothered, hehehe

    • Exactly, with some people it isn’t worth pointing out, like maybe if the person isn’t someone isn’t in your circle of friends, but for some I think it really is helpful because we don’t know we’re doing those things a lot of the times :)

  6. Such great tips on how to actually listen, Rebecca. This seems to have been exacerbated by social media, where everyone is yelling to be heard :) But true listening, as you’ve outlined, is such an enriching experience for both parties. How lovely to see that look of gratitude from someone who realizes she was truly heard!
    I love your “asking questions” part. That is just huge.
    Thank You!

Your thoughts?

Leave a Comment

We’d love to hear them! Please share.

Think Simple Now, a moment of clarity © 2007-2015 ThinkSimpleNow.com Privacy Disclaimer
Back to top