- Good conversation depends as much on listening as on speaking.
- Listening well comprises 5 skills: creating safety, validating concisely, deploying curiosity, whole body listening, and noticing subtext.
- In other words, put your phone down!
Happy, satisfied, and nourished: It's how we feel after a good meal—and also after a conversation with a great listener. Like bees to bright, welcoming blossoms, we are naturally drawn to amazing listeners.
How do great listeners help their conversation partners feel truly seen, heard, and understood? They tap into these 5 skills:
1. Great listeners create safety.
What makes a great listener so magnetic? They know that the basis of any solid connection is something fundamental: safety. At its heart, safety is freedom from risk, danger, or harm. Conversational safety falls right in line, offering freedom from judgment, fault-finding, or rejection.
Just as immersing yourself in a novel requires suspension of disbelief, immersing yourself in listening requires suspension of criticism. This is not to say great listeners never disagree, have their own opinions, or offer what worked for their sister, but they apply the Hippocratic oath of “First, do no harm” to their conversations.
2. Great listeners validate in a few simple words.
“Of course.” “That makes sense.” “For sure.” “I get that.” All of these statements are short—three words or fewer—but all affirm a person’s experience or feelings as worthy and accepted, which is the very definition of validation.
In conversation, validating phrases like “Of course you feel that way,” or “That makes total sense,” don’t necessarily convey agreement, but they do convey something even bigger: acceptance, which underscores the sense of safety from Habit #1.
3. Great listeners follow their natural curiosity.
This is the fun part of listening. Rather than nodding and waiting until it’s their turn to talk, great listeners use their spidey senses to pick up on interesting tidbits. They sit up and take notice of under-the-radar comments or casually dropped breadcrumbs.
For instance, this past week, the very first sentence a new client said was, “I think my problems started when the university administration told me getting stalked was my fault.” Whoa! Sentences like these are packed with meaning like a treasure chest is packed with valuables. Opening them up and digging around yields gems of great interest and great value.
Therefore, when your brain starts buzzing at a seemingly offhand comment, ask questions. Like a journalist, ask what, when, where, why, and how. Ask for examples and details. Following your natural curiosity by asking questions not only demonstrates that you are listening and interested, but almost always yields an intriguing story.
4. Great listeners listen with their entire bodies.
Kindergarten teachers impart something called “whole body listening.” It goes like this: Use your eyes to watch nonverbals, your brain to think about what is being said, and your heart to feel emotions—and keep the rest of your body quiet to show respect.
I love that listening gets formally taught to kids, but like the quadratic equation or the difference between fission and fusion, many of us lose it over time, especially as life gets busy. The result: We often try to multitask while listening, half-listening while getting stuff done, or staring at a screen.
But much of what we communicate comes from nonverbal cues like facial expressions, gestures, and posture. So when we multitask while listening, we miss all these signals, plus we send the message to our conversation partner that chopping carrots or scrolling through our phone is just as important as what they have to say.
I get it: Refraining from multitasking is hard. Why? Because listening is largely internal, it appears passive. It may not feel like an activity unto itself. Therefore, involve your whole body to make listening conscious for you and noticeable to your conversation partner.
5. Great listeners hear what’s underneath the words.
Ready for ninja-level listening? Listen to what’s not being said. Maybe the speaker’s face doesn’t match their words: Perhaps they smile while talking about horrible, vulnerable things. Maybe their body language changes suddenly: Perhaps they cross their arms and shift their gaze. Maybe their tone changes: Perhaps they start to sound defensive, skeptical, or plain old sad. What to do? You already have all the tools. Follow your natural curiosity, listen with your whole body, and refrain from judging so they feel safe.
All in all, listening well is simply a matter of tuning in. Tune in to the person who’s speaking, tune in to your own curiosity, and tune in to your own possible judgments (and squash them before they fall out of your mouth).
Good listening can be hard at first. It’s much more tempting to do something else simultaneously, talk about your own experience, or offer advice (which, when you think about it, is a form of judgment: "Here’s what you should do”). But it’s worth the practice. Soon, you’ll be so good at listening you’ll do it without saying a word.
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