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How to Really Listen to Someone

Photo by Thomas Hawk
To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other person will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments. ~Dale Carnegie

Everyone desires to be heard. When we listen to others, we validate their need to be acknowledged and understood. Deep down inside, we all want to know that we matter, that we are important. Don’t you find that meeting someone who shows interest in what we have to say, we tend to take a liking to them instantly?

I’m not asking you to pretend to be interested in hopes of being liked, but rather to pay attention to this often overlooked and forgotten skill. In addition to improving your personal and professional relationships, listening also helps to prevent misunderstandings and facilitates cooperation.

The following are techniques to being an effective listener. I have learned these from communication courses, seminars and books on personal relationships. These are ones I’ve personally found to be useful when engaged in a conversation with other people:

  • Mirroring – mimic the other personal facial expressions and body positions. React as if you have become their mirror. Mirroring will allow you to feel what they are feeling, and have a deeper understanding of feelings carried with the words. People will begin to feel very comfortable being around you without consciously understanding why.Did you know that a baby will mimic the expressions of adults? Try it next time you’re playing with a baby in a crib. Make a distinct face, and watch the baby’s reaction.I learned this technique first from a psychology textbook, and later from Tony Robbins. After trying it myself, I learned that you can experience what others are feeling, but might find yourself on the same wavelength with similar thoughts and visions. Our physiology (facial expression, gesture and posture) can affect our internal state. Mirroring is just a technique to put yourself in a position (literally) to accept and internalize the meaning behind the words.
    • For example, you are sitting across the table from someone, the other person is holding a glass of water with his left hand, leaning forward and towards the right side. You mirror them by holding a glass of water or cup with your right hand, leaning forward and towards the left side.
  • Focus On Them, Not Yourself – In conversations, I often lose my mind in my own thoughts. I get hung on what I’m going to say next or random thoughts like, ‘How do I look?’, ‘I’m hungry’, ‘What should I do tonight?’ The trick is to shift that attention and focus on the speaker. Give them your full attention. Be genuinely interested in them and what they have to say. Here’s a quote from Dale Carnegie extracted from principle 4 ofHow to Win Friends and Influence People

“Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.”

  • Active Listening - It’s easy to let your mind wander while someone is talking. It’s also natural to focus on how you plan to respond to the speaker rather than giving your full attention. Try active listening to shift focus on listening:
    • Repeat – Repeat what they are saying in your head, in your own words. Internalize the meaning of the words.
    • Summarize what you heard. A great listening technique involves rephrasing the speaker’s words and repeating them back to them. This verifies that you understood what the speaker said, and also gives the speaker a chance to clarify their thoughts. You can start the sentence with “So what I’m hearing you say is” or “Are you saying that
    • Look for the message – Look for keywords. Don’t just listen with your ears, but also with your heart and soul. Connect with them. There are so much more said than just words alone. Try to ask yourself, What is their point? Where are they coming from? What do they need? What they are saying in words is just an expression, but there’s always an underlying message. Look for that core message.




  • Body Language – lets the speaker know you are paying attention and care about what they are saying.
    • Make Eye Content - show you are paying attention. Make sure your eyes are not wander around the environment, looking behind the person. One technique is to focus on just one eye, this shows concentration and will help you focus.
    • Smile - When we are focused, we tend to have no expressions on our face and this can be interpreted as unwelcoming or uninterested. Remember to wear a smile, even a slight one.
    • Node & ‘Un-huh’ - Add “un-huh”, “hmmm”, “I see” in between sentences. This is direct feedback to the speaker, it acknowledges to the other person that their words are heard and understood.
    • Lean Forward – lean slightly towards the person, show that you are interested in what they have to say and are giving them your full attention.
  • Questions & Probing – Ask questions to clarify your understanding. People like questions, provided you are conscious of when not to ask questions (for example, you don’t want to interrupt their train of thought by jumping in with questions as they speak). This shows that you are listening and are following them. Probe for additional and related information. Some good probing sentence starters are How? Why? For example, “How did it happen?” “And what was your reaction?” “Why did you choose to leave?”
  • Non-Judgmental – Listen with compassion, openness and acceptance. In conversations, we often think about refutes and counter-arguments as the other person speaks. Listen with openness by recognizing that they are expressing themselves, and allow them the freedom to do that. Besides, we don’t want to be judged when we are speaking, so why should we judge others?
  • Don’t interrupt – Let the speaker finish their thoughts. Don’t move on to what you’d like to say until the speaker has finished talking. If you have something to say, bite your tongue and nod. Be patient, wait for your turn. Remember how annoying it was when someone interrupted you? And you lost your train of thought? Give others respect and allow them to finish.

If you lose focus, change your body position. If you find your mind wandering, move to a different position and try using one of the techniques above to refocus on the speaker.

Do you have any listening tips or thoughts you’d like to share? We’d love to hear ‘em in the comments. See you there!

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About the author

Tina Su is a mom, a wife, a lover of Apple products and a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) for our motivational community: Think Simple Now. She is obsessed with encouraging and empowering people to lead conscious and happy lives. Subscribe to new inspiring stories each week. You can also subscribe to Tina on Facebook.

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56 thoughts on How to Really Listen to Someone

  1. Your suggestion about mirroring reminds me of the Desmond Morris show The Human Animal. IIRC, they talked about mirroring as a subconscious flirting behavior – if someone likes you, or you want to show that you like someone, then you begin mirroring each other’s actions.

    For example, you’ll both take drinks from your glass at the same time, or use your napkin, or sit in similar postures.

    Basically, effective listening is very similar to flirting – in both cases you’re engaging the other person and subconsciously demonstrating interest ;)

  2. Glad you wrote about the topic of being a good listener — you actually brought up 1 point that I DISAGREE with.

    Under ‘body language’, where you state “Nod & ‘Un-huh’”, I find that when someone intently listens to me, they’re usually nearly 100% silent while I speak.

    I notice that often, people who have tuned you out, but want to give the appearance of active listening, tend to add a lot of “un-huh”s and “right”s while you’re talking — and they’ll say “uh-huh” rhythmically — as in every 5 secs for example.

    This ‘listener’ becomes so focused on appearing like they’re listening, they forget to really listen to what’s being said.

  3. Hi Mayo,

    I completely agree with you that by focusing on the appearance of listening, one can forget to really listen to what’s actually being said.

    I’ve been in conversations with people who says ‘uh-huh’ so much that it appeared unnatural and I wondered as I spoke whether they got what I was saying. This can be kinda annoying too for the speaker. One thing I should have mentioned in the article is to be natural and not over do anything. These tips are just pointers that one can be conscious of. Different techniques works better on different people. All techniques aside, the best tip is to focus 100% of energy on listening to the other person. But people tend to have a hard time doing this, which is where the pointers come in as handy tools.

    Thanks for your input! :)

  4. I have a tendency to nod when listening to a person when I agree totally with what they are saying or when I really, really get what they are saying. I hope no one thinks that I am not listening when I do that. Sometimes, it happens before I can even think about the movement especially if what the other person just said is really exciting to me.

  5. very good, Tina Su.
    “Concentrate on them” and “- Listen with compassion, openness and acceptance.” –I like these best.
    I had a dear friend that few people could get to know anything about because she would always say “I know about me, darling. I want to know about you.”
    Everyone one felt special when visiting with Kitty, because she gave her attention fully.
    Many, many people mourned their loss as if they were personally struck by her death….because each one was special in her presence.

    Many blessings to you and all you hold dear,
    CG

  6. Thank you for submitting this article to the Living by Design Blog Carnival – it has been included in Carnival No. 21

    with best wishes
    Ananga

    Living by Design – Personal Development for Thoughtful People
    http://www.ananga.squarespace.com

  7. jd

    Hey Tina –

    Good rundown. Active listening is one of those skills that’s both surprisingly simple as well as surprisingly effective.

    I think a big part of really listening means, being open to be being completely wrong. For example, if you are defensive of your ideas, it can be tough to really listen. The more open you are, the more receptive you are, the better listener you become.

    Listening to understand is different from listening to prove you wrong.
    Waiting until you are done speaking so I can say my next point, isn’t the same as listening, either.

  8. Melissa

    THANKS! Great advice! I am going to put my new techniques to work starting today! :)

  9. Suphattra

    Tina,

    Thank you for your good article keep it up!!!!

  10. sen

    Thank you Tina for all the time spent for us.your writings are really worthwhile.

    So,focusing on one eye rather than two certainly makes the
    difference.Is it? I just find it interesting to try.

  11. Sudo

    There’s some great advice here for tricking people into thinking you care, but experience has taught me that anyone else who knows about these “techniques” will spot them immediately, and will (often rightly) assume you are only feigning an interest. This can obviously be more damaging than simply not being a good listener…

    I’m not saying there’s bad advice here, but just warning that feigning an interest is not always a good strategy. As with all advice, take it with a pinch of salt.

    Oh, and Philip Ang asks: “You have one mouth and two ears. Why not two mouths and one ear?”

    I like the sentiment, but that’s really a question for a biologist…

  12. i am 52 yre old and find myself looking for someone i have never met i need help in finding her otherwise i will never content if someone thinks they can help i would be very grateful

  13. anonymous

    Thanks Tina!
    How about when you’re nervous around the other person and it’s hard to even concentrate on what they’re saying…because you’re thinking about them.

    • @anonymous

      haha.. then you must do what you can to relax. Like focusing on taking some deep breathes. And continue to “look” like you’re listening to not distract the speaker. :)

      That’s happened to me when meeting someone famous or very wealthy. It also helps to remember that everyone is another human, and we all have feelings, and fears, and insecurities. The other person is probably distracted with their own insecurities. :)

  14. Neha

    Hi Tina,
    I am really sure about how mirroring can help us connect to people better when we are physically present with them.Often I have to talk to people who are really miles afar,on the phone or sometimes just through mail. I am not very sure about how I can understand exactly what they feel, because at times they may not directly express that which is going on in their head. Maybe this is not much of a part of this very topic of listening to someone, but i would definitely appreciate your guidance through this.

  15. Elizabeth

    hi Tina,
    I’m a painfully shy person. I was actually directed here from your 20 ways to overcome shyness. I just started a job in customer service and people have been complaining that i have been unfriendly. While I feel I have been … let’s say adequately friendly. Any advice… ?
    P.S. great articles by the way

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