Being a Good Listener Is Crucial to Maintaining Strong Relationships, so Here Are 20 Ways to Get Better at It
By KAITLIN VOGEL on April 21, 2021
As Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
The ability to truly listen is one of the most important life skills a person can possess, and is a crucial element to showing moral support. In fact, good listeners have deeper personal relationships—it is only when we feel heard and understood that we can connect with others in a deep, meaningful way.
The sad truth is many people think they’re good listeners when in fact they’re simply waiting for their turn to add their two cents. Thankfully, listening is a skill that can be developed and strengthened over time. To learn how to be a better listener, we’ve spoken to therapists and mental health experts. Here’s what you should know.
How to be a better listener
Listen to others the way you’d want to be listened to: Undistracted
A good listener is always fully present, and part of what often gets in the way of listening is that we’re focused on everything but the speaker, says Heidi J. Dalzell, PsyD, Cell phones, computer sand TV can wait. Turn off the demands and the tendency to multitask.
This may take a little practice, but curious questions can help you stay with the person and where they’re at by trying to ask questions that can help you learn more about how they feel instead of questions that suggest an agenda, Dr. Erika Beckles Camez, LMFT, MBA, explains.
For example, you can ask questions like, “How long have you been feeling this way?”, “Have you felt this way before?”, and “What do you need that would be helpful?”
Look for the feeling being shared, and validate it
The first rule of all human beings is that we are relational creatures, therefore we want to share whatever experience we’re having. Whether it is excitement about something or despair, we rarely want to be alone in our feelings. So we use words and objects to let our emotions out says Stephanie Smith, therapist and founder of The Couch.
Look for areas of alignment
What often gets in the way of communication is that we’re programmed to see areas of disagreement rather than alignment. When presented with an opposing viewpoint, consider the speaker’s position, and ways in which you align, Dalzell recommends. It’s often more obvious than you initially thought.
“For example, many opposing political views are built on fears for safety and family,” says Dalzell. “Align to bridge, and only then share your perspective.”
Show you’re listening
Use positive body language to add energy to the conversation and show people that you are actively listening and engaged, Dr. Holly Schiff, PsyD, and licensed Clinical Psychologist explains.
This can be as simple as nodding encouragingly, leaning in or closer, tilting your head, or arching an eyebrow at the right moment. These are signals that help show the other person that you’re listening to them.
Stay in the moment
Another character trait of good listeners? Mindfulness, and the ability to stay in the moment.
Focus on the conversation’s content and the speaker’s body language and intent, Dalzell suggests. Look directly into the other person’s eyes. One important aspect of this is non-judgment: Try to listen in an objective, non-judgmental way.
Repeat and reflect
When someone is sharing personal information with us, whether it’s about their day or something more serious, he/she wants to be heard and understood. Even when you don’t know what to say, reflecting or repeating back what they have said shows you are with them and encourages them to continue to offer more information, Dr. Natalie Bernstein, psychologist and life coach, states.
This is a very popular introductory idea taught in psychology. For example: “I had the worst day today.” Response: “You didn’t have a good day?”
If all else fails, ask yourself what’s more important: The relationship or the conversation?
When you enter a conversation that is challenging, remember that proving a point is not deep listening, Dalzell says. It may cost you the relationship. Is that more important? Or is the relationship foremost?
Pick the right timing and environment
If you do not have time, have something important on your mind, or if you are not in the appropriate environment, then it might not be the best time or place to have a discussion, Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, CASAC, therapist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist, explains.
You can be honest with the individual by letting them know that you want to be present for what they are saying, and ask if you can have the conversation at another time.
Remember that listening is different than debate
Were you your school’s debate champion? Lose your trophy. Deep listening creates connection and understanding. Rebuttal creates distance (and potentially conflict), Dalzell states. Step back and try to hear what is being communicated rather than remaining in your head seeking to “win” the conversation.
Don’t go into fix-it mode
It can be tempting to feel the need to fix it when someone is sharing their thoughts or feelings. While your intentions may be good, it’s not the most helpful strategy.
“Remember that the most helpful thing you can do is to offer an ear and just listen,” says Dr. Camez. “Until the individual asks for your help or opinion you are giving them the biggest gift of offering a safe and non-judgmental place where they can share their feelings.”
Keep confidential information confidential
This may seem obvious, but people who share secrets are not only untrustworthy but also poor listeners.
If someone is telling you something confidential, private, or trusting you with a secret, no matter how tempted you might be to tell someone else, don’t, Dr. Schiff explains. Being a good listener means being trustworthy and sensitive with information that has been shared with you.
If someone tells you something in confidence, assure them that what they are telling you will be safe with you. This also helps deepen the relationship and increases the likelihood that this person will come to you in the future to share other things.
Recognize that people have different experiences.
It is so critical to remember that we are all different and have different experiences and backgrounds that may inform our thoughts and feelings in different ways. If we can recognize that when someone is talking they are simply speaking their truth or their perspective, it may be less tempting to get defensive and jump in, says Dr. Camez.
Think back to a time when you felt truly “heard”
When we listen, we often feel pulled to start talking about times when we also struggled in a similar way, Dr. Kendal Cassidy, PhD, explains. It’s OK to think back to that personal moment, but instead of sharing the details think about what someone did that was helpful (or unhelpful) and use that knowledge to structure your response.
You can ask if they know what they need
When you’re listening to someone, you can get distracted with thoughts of, “I don’t know what to say.” If you’re unsure, tell the person, “If you know what you need, let me know. Otherwise, I’m happy to just listen and be here for you,” says Dr. Cassidy.
Be aware of your ego triggers
Ask yourself: Is the topic a little “close to home?”
“For example, I know of therapists who have a hard time listening to their client’s issues when the therapist themselves are going through the same problem, or have done so in the past,” Peter E. Gradilone, LMSW, MAT, states. If that’s the case, you can tell your loved one this—it may be more beneficial to your relationship than pretending to listen when you can’t stop thinking about your own problem.
Remember to value silence when appropriate
To avoid awkward silences, many people try to talk and fill in the gap. But in many cases, it’s better to do the opposite. Silence can allow thoughts to “sink in.” There is an old saying that when we listen, we learn—and when we speak, we are just repeating what we already know, notes Gradilone.
Pause your concern about how you are going to respond to the other person
Have you ever been introduced to someone, but you aren’t paying attention to their name because you’re busy worrying about saying your name? Let’s put a pause on that worry, Aja Evans, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, says.
When you’re concerned about how you are going to respond to the other person, it can be a struggle to actively listen to them. After they finish, start your response, even if you have to pause. You can even give them a heads up and let them know that you’re gathering your thoughts.
Listen even when you don’t agree
When someone is sharing something difficult or uncomfortable, this is when we really need to step up our listening game.
At this time, we might need to self soothe as we listen and tell ourselves that “the person sharing this is someone who cares for me, my growth and gives value to our relationship” and I can trust that, even if I do not agree with what they might be sharing, Smith explains. Listen anyway, it isn’t an act of agreement, rather an act of respect to the relationship.
Remind yourself that the act of listening helps
Listening, without interruption, allows your partner to unload the burden of their feelings that requires nothing from me other than the loving act of listening. This in itself helps to unburden our partners load and gives them relief. It does not require me to fix or do anything with what my partner is saying. In fact, the act of interrupting with my own idea to bring into the discussion prevents the sharing of the feeling. (remember #1, we want to not be alone in our feelings), says Smith.