- Real listening means embracing someone else’s need for attention.
- People find great relief when they sense that they’ve been taken seriously. It gives them a sense of acceptance rather than isolation.
- The challenge of being a good listener is to resist giving in to one's emotions, including impatience—and keep listening.
One of the most useful books you'll ever ready may be The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, by Michael P. Nichols, a family and couples therapist who also teaches at William & Mary College.
His short list of guidelines sounds simple, but we all can use reminders:
- Concentrate on the person speaking. Set aside distractions. Suspend your agenda. Interrupt as little as possible. If you do interrupt, it should be to encourage the speaker to say more.
- Try to grasp what the speaker is trying to express. Don’t react to just the words—listen for the underlying ideas and feelings. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Ask open-ended questions.
- Let the speaker know that you understand. Use silence, reassuring comments, paraphrasing, empathic comments.
Maybe you already think you’re a good or excellent listener. There are obvious ways we fail to pay attention—by multi-tasking, waiting restlessly for our turn to speak, or simply tuning out—and many ways we fool ourselves that we’re good listeners.
Some people learn to do a great job of pretending to pay attention (think of the fixed glaze of a politician).
Self-conscious or anxious people often spend their listening time focused on what the other person thinks of them—but believe they’re good listeners because they want to be.
Others play therapist or advisor and make themselves the star with their wonderful helpfulness, including unrequested advice.
You might be quick with a joke that directs attention back to you.
Nichols has a simple rule: “When listening is genuine, the emphasis is on the speaker, not the listener,” he writes.
Real listening means embracing someone else’s need for attention. You hang in when you’re tempted to interrupt, mentally wander, judge, or solve the problem. You may be silent but never passive. It isn’t easy to do when people talk for more than a few minutes, especially if the relationship has become anxious or emotionally intense.
The pressure is real—because true listening is so valuable. People find great relief when they sense that they’ve been taken seriously. As Nichols puts it, “Being listened to spells the difference between feeling accepted and feeling isolated.”
Become comfortable with silences. People may need space to think about what has been said. They may also need space to notice any feelings that were triggered.
If you ask a question, be okay with a silence while the other person is preparing a response.
Make questions advance the conversation. Some questions shut people down. They might focus on an unimportant detail or seem designed to challenge, rather than prompt an answer.
For example, skip debates and quibbles about words. “But you said X.” Most of the time, misunderstandings occur because “something in the speaker’s message triggers hurt, anger, or impatience,” Nichols writes. We pick on other people’s words to prove them wrong or demonstrate that we’re not at fault ourselves. “When is an argument not an argument?" asks Nichols. "When you don’t argue back.”
If you’re confused, you may need to clear up the confusion early. But sometimes you just need to wait for the information to come without your interruption. It helps for you to ask questions that expand on what you feel might be an underlying, still unspoken issue.
Share your own experiences but don’t take over the conversation. Make sure the other person is finished before you take your turn.
Don’t stress about always saying the right thing. If you’re trying to be a better listener, you are on the right track. Perfection isn’t possible.
Make time. Sometimes you just don’t have the time to listen to a particular person at a particular time. Be honest about that and set up another time to talk—and keep your word.
Serious listening takes time, but it can also save you time. You’ll dramatically cut back on confusion and arguments if you hear what people mean, not just what they say.
The challenge is to resist giving in to your emotions, including impatience—and keep listening. You may think you already know what you’re going to hear, or have a definite agenda about how you want the conversation to go. You may be afraid of what you’ll hear. All those thoughts and emotions get in the way.
Most people won’t be interested in your point of view until they believe you’ve heard and appreciated theirs. If you’ve got a case to make, you might start by asking questions and show that you’ve listened by entering into the logic of their tale and extending their arguments: “I can see that would imply that…” For emotional subjects, naming an emotion, “It’s scary,” or phrases such as “I hear you,” actually do help—if you’re truthful.
“Be attentive. Be interested. Listen hard. Overcome the need to get credit for listening,” Nichols urges.
Sometimes the challenge is especially big. Some people are hard to listen to. They may dominate conversations with long stories or factual lectures, usually with unnecessary detail. Dramatic people may make you feel trapped in watching their performance. Some people talk obsessively about one subject and won’t let you change the topic. It’s also hard to listen to people who never tell you anything personal.
Recognize when you’re the one who is hard to listen to. I have a relative who I experience as an unbearable, long-winded bore. His take on me is that I talk too much. Apparently, our vastly different perception is the norm. “In 40 years of counseling couples, I’ve met very few people who don’t think they do an unequal share of listening in their relationships,” Nichols writes.
The effort of trying to be a better listener will help you see how speakers make that job harder—and may teach you by example. We are least tolerant of our own faults in others.
Maintaining relationships includes doing what you can to make them rewarding for you. When you can’t listen anymore, you’re probably not getting the kind of listening you need. Nichols suggests asking for what you want explicitly. You can say “I’m upset and I need to talk. Just listen, okay?” Say “I don’t want advice,” if that’s the case. Or you might say, “Will you give me some advice, even if I don’t end up following it?”
With someone who often interrupts you, defend yourself by saying, “What I was trying to say is…” If that person continues, stay calm and say, “I’m sorry but I can’t pay attention to your story because I wasn’t finished telling mine.”
When you make those kinds of requests, of course, you’re creating the expectation that you’ll reciprocate. You ask for respect because you will give it. As awkward as this sounds, you may save your relationship.
Sometimes listening performs magic. Although listening can feel hard in the moment, over time it makes relationships easier. As a reporter, I’ve experienced this over and over: People become funnier, more open, insightful, and creative under the light of good attention. Then, when you least expect it, they reciprocate.
A version of this story also appears on Your Care Everywhere.