- A speaker who wants to be heard needs to find a listener who is willing and able to do that.
- Trust between the speaker and the listener enhances their communication.
- Words and overt behaviors are indicators of how well one is listening.
- Agreeableness, curiosity, and being open to experience are elements of effective listening.
When you are talking to someone, do you ever have the feeling that the person is not listening to you? They may be looking at you earnestly or even asking questions, yet it doesn’t seem as if the person is really hearing what you have to say. This belief regarding the “listener” may affect not only the “speaker’s” impression of them but also the nature of their relationship. Most people do not take kindly to not being heard. However, who bears the responsibility for this?
Generally, listening is passive. The listener is there so the speaker can express their feelings and thoughts to another person. The listener may ask questions or make comments or even offer recommendations about what the speaker should do.
Passive listening may be helpful for someone who just wants to talk or get something “off their chest.” The speaker is not necessarily looking for feedback, comments, or recommendations on what to do. Simply expressing their thoughts or feelings about something to another person may be all the speaker wants from the listener (i.e., looking for a pair of ears). Being able to talk out loud to someone is all they are seeking. This type of listening is different from “active listening.”
Active listening is a skill and practice usually conducted by mental health or other helping professionals. Rogers (1951) identified “active listening” as being creative, non-judgmental, and empathic. It is seeing ideas and attitudes from the other person’s viewpoint. It also incorporates responding empathically through words and actions (Bodie et al., 2013).
Nemec et al. (2017) further identify “active listening” as requiring several activities and abilities on the part of the listener. For example, these may consist of being prepared physically and mentally to let go of other activities and thoughts and focus fully on what the speaker is saying. It also involves expending energy. Nemec et al. suggest the following approaches:
- Asking open-ended questions so that the issue can be more fully explored
- Paraphrasing the speaker’s words so that the content and meaning of what they are saying are clear; this also communicates that the listener is paying attention
- Reflecting feelings: doing so demonstrates not only empathy but also a depth of understanding by giving a reason for the speaker’s feelings
- Using a formula, such as identifying a feeling and the reason for it (p. 416)
Other suggestions include listening carefully to the speaker and asking simple questions while being careful not to impose one’s own viewpoint or opinion (Kobler, 2012). Listening means listening and not directing.
Suggestions for Effective Listening
Given that most people are not trained to be active listeners, what can they do to be more effective listeners? Ames et al. (2012) highlight some personality characteristics that can play an important role in effective listening. These include:
- Being open to experience
- Demonstrating curiosity and creativity that can open channels for disclosure by the speaker
- Being agreeable, caring, and warm, which often leads to trust and cooperation by the speaker
Kluger and Itzchakov (2022) suggest that good listening may also consist of asking relevant and sensitive questions, asking for clarification, and having a non-judgmental attitude (p. 123).
Words are not the only indicators of listening. Often, certain overt behaviors may signal good listening. Some examples are nodding one’s head; positioning one’s body toward the speaker; demonstrating appropriate emotions (e.g., laughing at a joke); and maintaining good eye contact. Kluger and Itzchakov suggest, “The better the listeners’ attention, comprehension, and intention, the more likely they are to engage in observable behaviors signaling good listening to the speaker” (p. 123). Some overt behavioral signals may also indicate poor listening, such as doing something else while listening or changing the topic.
According to Ames et al. (2012), being an effective listener calls for “openness to experience,” such as being creative, intellectually curious, and having diverse and novel viewpoints. It also relies on people who are agreeable. Such individuals typically get along with others, are cooperative, and have empathy and concern for others. These characteristics also tend to encourage the listener’s influence on the speaker.
It is important that we listen to what people say and properly offer our impressions in a manner that establishes trust. This requires that the listener be aware of their own experiences and how they are or are not similar to the speaker’s. People differ in their attitudes and beliefs. Recognizing differences and being willing to look at issues in a different way than one is familiar with or accepting of is essential in establishing trust. Effective listening requires trust that stems from “openness” (Gilligan and Eddy, 2021).
As stated earlier, effective listening is not your usual, run-of-the-mill communication between two people. It requires cognitive and emotional skills on the listener’s part; however, the listener should be careful not to comment on what may be beyond their knowledge. If necessary, encouraging the speaker to seek appropriate assistance would be advisable, particularly if the issues are serious. Doing so is engaging in effective listening by helping the speaker recognize that professional help may be needed.
Being a truly effective listener takes effort and life experience. It requires patience and dedication to wanting to help others. Most importantly, the listener must set aside their own wants and needs and be present so as to fully and genuinely listen to the speaker. Perhaps an effective listener can be identified succinctly as one who genuinely makes others feel heard.
Ames, D., Maissen, L. B., & Brockner, J. (2012). The role of listening in interpersonal influence. Journal of Research in Personality , 46(3), 345–349. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2012.01.010
Bodie, G. D., Vickery, A. J., & Gearhart, C. C. (2013). The nature of supportive listening I: Exploring the relation between supportive listeners and supportive people. International Journal of Listening, 27(1), 39 – 49. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10904018.2013.732408
Gilligan, C., & Eddy, J. (2021). The listening guide: Replacing judgment with curiosity. Qualitative Psychology, 8(2), 141-151. https://doi.org/10.1037/qup0000213
Kluger, A. N., & Itzchakov, G. (2022). The power of listening at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 9, 121-146. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-012420-091013
Kobler, K. (2012). Listening with the ear of your heart. Illness, Crisis & Loss, 20(3), 305-307. DOI:10.2190/IL.20.3.i
Nemec, P. B., Spagnolo, A. C., & Soydan, A. S. (2017). Can you hear me now? Teaching listening skills. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 40(4), 415-417. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/prj0000287
Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-Centered Therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory. Houghton Mifflin.