How to Be an Effective Listener
Letting them know you’ve heard what they said.
Posted March 6, 2023 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Effective listening is more than just paying attention and comprehending; we also need to show we’re listening.
- Some listening cues, like nodding, smiling, and making eye contact, are easy to fake, so they can’t be trusted.
- Other listening cues, like paraphrasing and asking follow-up questions, are hard to fake, making them reliable signals that we've been listening.
People have a basic need to feel that they’ve been heard. This is true both in formal settings and in our daily interactions with those we’re closest to.
Workers who feel their bosses listen to them show greater commitment and motivation to their jobs. Patients who believe their healthcare providers listen to them are more satisfied with the care they receive and are more likely to adhere to proscribed medical regimens. People who believe their romantic partners listen to them are more satisfied with their relationship and more committed to it. We even like strangers more when they show authentic interest in the casual conversations we have with them.
People show they’re listening to their conversation partner in a wide variety of ways. However, according to Harvard Business School psychologist Hanna Collins, many of these “I’m listening” signals can be faked. So, the challenge becomes: How do we really know the other person is actually listening to us and not just faking it?
In an article she recently published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, Collins outlines the various methods people use to signal that they’re listening, and she also points out the ones that are most likely to be honest.
Showing Them We’re Listening
As Collins notes, listening is a complex process. Unlike hearing, which is passive, listening is an active behavior. For instance, you can hear that someone is talking even if you’re not paying attention to what they're saying.
However, listening requires not only attention but also active processing of the information. That is to say, you need to understand what they said, and that takes effort.
Intuitively, this is what listening is all about—paying attention and making the effort to understand. However, Collins points out that there’s also a third step to effective listening in day-to-day conversations, namely, showing your conversation partner that you’re listening to them.
We’ve all had the experience of feeling the other person isn’t listening to us. And when that happens, we quickly lose interest in continuing the interaction. To keep the conversation going, we have to show we’re listening to the other person.
Cues That Are Easy to Fake
Expressions of listening fall into three categories, non-verbal, paralinguistic, and verbal. Non-verbal cues include body language gestures such as nodding and smiling, which are intended to signal our interest in what the other person has to say. Likewise, eye gaze is often interpreted as indicating that we’re listening.
Providing such non-verbal cues can certainly make the conversation partner feel that they’re being listened to, and doing so will often make them want to talk more. However, Collins points out, these listening cues are easy to fake.
We’ve all been in conversations where we maintained eye contact, smiling and nodding the whole time, without listening to a word our conversation partner said. Sometimes, we’re just being polite, even though we’re bored. Other times, we’re too busy planning what we’re going to say next to listen to the other person.
In either case, though, we’ve deceived the other person. If we can so easily deceive others, then we can be deceived as well.
Somewhat more reliable are paralinguistic cues. These cues involve behaviors such as laughing and providing backchannel cues like “Uh-huh” and “Hmm.”
Using paralinguistic cues appropriately entails paying a certain amount of attention to what your conversation partner is saying. This is because you need to insert them at appropriate points in the conversation. However, it’s mainly the speaker’s cadences that tell us when to laugh or provide a backchannel cue, and skilled conversationalists can do this even when their mind is elsewhere.
Cues That Are Hard to Fake
Finally, there are verbal expressions of listening. These mainly involve paraphrasing what the person has just said or asking follow-up questions.
According to Collins, these are the most honest signals of listening because they cannot be faked. You can’t paraphrase what your conversation partner just said if you weren’t listening, nor can you ask plausible follow-up questions.
Your conversation partner may or may not believe you’re listening to them if you use non-verbal or paralinguistic cues. Some people will take these as genuine, but others will know that they’ve faked them before and will question your sincerity as well.
However, if you paraphrase what your conversation partner just said, they’ll know you really were listening to them, and the emotional impact on them will be significant. The same is true if you ask a follow-up question that flows logically from what the other person just told you.
Ironically, Collins points out, using verbal listening cues not only shows you were sincerely listening, but it also makes you a better listener. This is because you can’t formulate appropriate paraphrases or follow-up questions if you didn’t listen attentively. So, by getting in the habit of using verbal listening cues, you’re also training yourself to listen attentively to each conversation you have.
In our busy lives, it can be tempting to fake our way through many of our day-to-day interactions. But when we go through the day on autopilot, self-absorbed and ignoring those around us, we end up feeling that our lives are empty and meaningless.
Rather, a rich, fulfilling life comes from meaningful interactions with other people. When we show others that we truly care about them, we enrich their lives—and we enrich our own as well.
Collins, H. K. (2022). When listening is spoken. Current Opinion in Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2022.101402