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Practical Tips to Become a Great Listener

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

Have you ever not known how to act when a friend or colleague shared a negative experience? Or maybe you’ve said something that you thought was nice, only to find it wasn't received well?

Listening in a supportive and non-judgemental way, so that people feel heard and understood sounds easier than it is. Thankfully, some studies have found that Active Listening is a learnable skill. Developing this skill may improve your life in a variety of ways. For instance:

  • In relationships: When you actively listen to others, you demonstrate that you value their thoughts and opinions, which can foster trust and deepen connections.

  • In personal growth: When you listen attentively to others, you are able to gain a deeper understanding of their perspectives, needs, and concerns. This understanding can enable you see other ways of seeing situations that you normally wouldn't have considered. .

  • At work: By actively listening to your colleagues and superiors, you may find that you can grasp important information, instructions, and feedback more accurately. This can enable you to perform your tasks more effectively, contribute meaningfully to discussions, and demonstrate your commitment to the team's success. Active Listening can also help your work colleagues feel understood and appreciated.

Improving these areas of your life through Actively Listening sounds good, right? But how can you put this into practice?

Here are a few tips from a framework developed for the Samaritans Suicide helpline in the UK, where it’s used to train volunteers who currently answer 5 million calls per year. These tips are designed to create space for the other person to continue talking, making these conversations more helpful for the speaker.

  1. Ask open questions: Open questions are questions that cannot be answered with a simple “Yes.” or “No.” They often start with words like ’how’, ‘what’, ‘where’, or ‘who’. For instance, if a friend approaches you and says that his boss called him out, you might ask an open question such as “What happened?” or “How did that make you feel?”.

  2. Summarize: You might say “Let me check I’m following…” or "Are you saying that..." and then repeat back a quick summary of what you heard. All you’re doing here is checking you understood what was said and letting the other person know that you’re following along closely.

  3. Clarify: Phrases such as “when you said that…” or “earlier you said…” can help them clarify essential points that the speaker glosses over. Allowing someone to explain their emotions and thoughts, or to delve deeper into a specific topic, is one way you can help them process and understand their feelings about a situation.

  4. Say short words of encouragement: Short phrases like ‘yes’, ‘mhmm’, and ‘makes sense’ help to convey the message that you’re engaged without interrupting. Nodding your head as they speak to show you're understanding can also be helpful. If you listen in complete silence, offering no clues that you're interested, this can be a little unnerving for some people and they may wonder if you really care about what they're saying.

  5. Reflect: Simply repeat back a word or phrase to encourage the other person to go on. For instance, someone might say “I’ve been having some money problems.” And you could say “Some money problems?”. This light touch avoids inserting your own ideas into the conversation and keeps the focus on the other person — but without leaving awkward silences or having them feel like they need to stop and check that you're listening.

  6. React genuinely: Offer genuine, in-the-moment expressions of your emotions as you listen and empathize. It’s a way of showing that you’re following the emotional content of what the other person is saying and the factual content. For instance, if someone told you one of their family members had died and you responded with a polite nod or a non-committal “Okay,” they might, understandably, think you hadn’t fully understood what they were saying. Instead, a natural reaction like “I’m so sorry” or “That’s awful” would help the speaker know that you're empathizing with their feelings about the situation. When you're feeling an emotion based on what the other person is saying, if it's appropriate in context, it can be helpful to let that genuine emotion show on your face (e.g., if your friend is telling you about an upsetting event, you can show your genuine concern).

Remember that listening is not only about hearing the words, it’s also about understanding the meaning behind them, grasping the emotions, and empathizing with the speaker.

If you'd like to delve deeper on this topic to improve your skills, we also have a free tool that teaches Active Listening in a fun and interactive manner. It will help you to consolidate these learnings through a few exercises and also explore some common mistakes people make, such as:

  1. giving advice,

  2. trying to cheer people up, and

  3. poor voice tone.

Lastly, we leave you with an inspiring quote about the value of active listening:

"To say that a person feels listened to means a lot more than just their ideas get heard. It's a sign of respect. It makes people feel valued.”

Deborah Tannen


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