A Research-Based Guide to Becoming a Great Listener
Paraphrasing, clarifying, and conversational uptake.
Posted January 25, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- High-quality listening is associated with positive outcomes like greater intimacy, interpersonal chemistry, and relationship satisfaction.
- Listening can be expressed through behaviors that are verbal (paraphrasing), non-verbal (nodding), and paralinguistic (voice pitch).
- The most effective way of making someone feel heard is through the use of verbal signals—acknowledging, paraphrasing, and asking questions.
Published in Current Opinion in Psychology, a recent paper by H. K. Collins of Harvard University reviews the latest research on high-quality listening.
This post is a selective summary of the article.
The Benefits of Listening
High-quality listening is associated with many positive outcomes for both the speaker and the listener. For instance, listening responsively, in a way that creates a sense of safety and intimacy, promotes interpersonal chemistry.
At work, high-quality listening reduces burnout and increases well-being, trust, commitment, job knowledge, work performance, job satisfaction, and leadership. And according to a recent study, it even reduces loneliness (after disclosure of rejection experiences).
Listening is beneficial in many domains. For example, patients who feel listened to are more likely to adhere to their prescribed treatment, just as romantic partners who feel heard usually cope better and are more satisfied with their relationship.
Feeling listened to is also a pleasurable experience, though it is not directly related to being heard. In other words, people may feel heard when they are not really listened to, just as one may be listened to attentively but not feel heard.
Showing That One Has Been Listening
What is listening? It differs significantly from hearing. Listening is less automatic and more active, intentional, and effortful. It involves three stages:
- Paying attention to the relevant aspects of the conversation.
- Interpreting and evaluating the content of the conversation.
- Showing that you have been listening. This third stage is necessary to make the speaker feel heard.
This last stage is also the only time when deception is possible. After all, the speaker can only guess, based on expressions of listening, whether his/her conversation partner has been truly listening. These listening expressions include signals categorized as nonverbal, paralinguistic, and verbal, as described below.
3 Expressions of Active Listening
Nonverbal cues of good listening consist of body language signals such as leaning forward, nodding, maintaining eye contact, and appropriate facial expressions (e.g., smiling, furrowing of the brows).
Paralinguistic signs of good listening refer to vocal effects that are not verbal. These include matching the speaker’s style of speaking or tone of voice and making appropriate utterances—sighing, groaning, saying “hmm” or “uh-huh,” etc. These cues are important for communicating attention, interest, and understanding, and for establishing rapport.
Finally, verbal behaviors that indicate active listening include:
- Paraphrasing, which means restating what someone has said in order to communicate your attention and understanding of it. (“It sounds to me that you have been reluctant to share these concerns with your mother. Is that right?”)
- Requests for clarification. (“What do you mean your brother is ‘out of it’ these days?”)
- Conversational uptake, which refers to building on the contribution of the speaker by acknowledging, repeating, or elaborating. (“Talking to your dad was a good first step.”)
- Asking questions and follow-ups. (“What happened after you spoke to your dad?”)
The Importance of Verbal Cues of Attentive Listening
Note, most nonverbal and paralinguistic behaviors (e.g., nodding, saying “uh-huh,” eye contact) commonly associated with attentive listening are not directly related to the verbal content of what is being said. Therefore, they can be performed by both attentive listeners and pretenders.
In short, nonverbal and paralinguistic signs of good listening can be faked. These dishonest expressions of listening may help the listener achieve short-term goals, but they prevent the pursuit of long-term goals like mutual understanding.
Hence, to achieve long-term informational and relational goals, it is necessary to use reliable listening cues—listening behaviors that are not easy to fake. This means relying on verbal rather than paralinguistic or nonverbal cues.
A good example of such dependable cues is paraphrasing. Why? Because restating what has been said in one’s own words requires attention, cognitive processing of information, selecting the most important content, and communicating one’s understanding to the speaker.
So, paraphrasing is effortful and cognitively taxing. The same is true of good follow-up questions. A poor follow-up question would immediately reveal a failure to listen or remember key information.
In summary, verbal expressions are direct, useful, and reliable ways of showing that one has been listening. Indeed, listening with the intention of using verbal cues later helps you listen better, pay closer attention, and process the information more deeply.
Paralinguistic or nonverbal cues (e.g., nodding, saying “hmmm”) are useful only for immediate expressions of listening. Verbal signs of listening, by contrast, are more important either...:
- Later in the conversation, to call the speaker’s attention to a matter mentioned earlier in the conversation.
- In future conversations: To reference a discussion that took place hours, days, or weeks earlier.
Listening involves attention, processing of spoken information, and expressions of listening. Only the last stage makes a speaker feel heard.
So, how to make someone feel heard—be they a coworker, friend, romantic partner, parent, or child?
Here are some suggestions:
- To express listening when your conversational partner is speaking, use appropriate non-verbal and paralinguistic cues. Some examples are saying “hmm” or “uh-huh,” nodding, and leaning in.
- To express listening when it is your turn to speak, use verbal cues, such as paraphrasing or asking thoughtful follow-up questions.
Use verbal cues as much as possible because they are difficult to fake when compared to other cues (e.g., nodding, saying “mhmm”).
Verbal signs are honest expressions of listening and, as such, can promote relationship satisfaction, reciprocal honesty, and a greater willingness to disclose personal information.
Indeed, being heard is associated with enhanced well-being and relational benefits like increased trust, and as a result, greater intimacy and relationship satisfaction. As Collins notes, the best listening is, counterintuitively, “spoken.”
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