Listening is one of the skills we most value in those around us, whether we’re speaking to our boss, our friends, our parent or child, or just a passing stranger; feeling like someone is really listening when we’re speaking makes us feel valued and enables us to share what’s on our mind. Many good listeners share several traits in common: emulating some of these can help you to become a better listener and to become the person who people feel cares enough for them to open up to.
Sometimes we don’t have time to be a good listener because we have other pressures on our time. That’s fine and it’s far, far better to be honest about it and explain – “This feels like a really important conversation but I’m worried I’ll miss my train. I’ve got some time this evening, can we sit down then when we can both completely focus on it?” – than to continue to allow the conversation to happen with half an eye on the time and your mind already elsewhere.
When you’re listening to someone, make listening your sole activity. Put your phone on airplane mode. Turn off your screens. Find somewhere quiet where you won’t be interrupted and make it clear to the person that you’re listening to that they have your complete attention. Even before anything else has been said or done, the person you’re listening to feels valued and supported.
Depending on the topic of conversation, it can be pretty hard for people to open up – sitting face to face across a table might feel intimidating but sitting side by side can feel less so. Less so still is walking or driving whilst you talk, or perhaps participating in a creative activity that you both enjoy. Always be ready to listen – sometimes it’s the most unlikely moments when we’re engaged in an activity with someone we care about when they suddenly feel safe enough to open up.
The best listeners often say very little and they don’t make assumptions about what is about to be said. Instead, they give the person who is talking with them the space, time and occasional prompting to tell their story in their own words. Don’t be afraid of silence. Whilst the room may seem uncomfortably quiet to you, the person you’re listening to may be trying to make sense of a huge amount of noise going on in their head and it can take a little time for them to find the right words to explain things to you.
We are most likely to open up when we do not fear judgement or ridicule from the person we’re speaking too. Depending on the subject matter, we may have an opinion, but try to resist from forming or sharing judgements early on in the conversation. Instead just listen to what you’re being told.
Open questions can be a great way to help encourage the conversation. Considered questions – whether open or closed – are a great way of showing that we’re really listening. They can also be a great opportunity to clarify what is being said to us if there’s something we don’t fully understand or there’s a gap that we feel needs to be filled.
Reflecting back what someone has told us in our own words is another great way to clarify what is being said and to ensure that any misunderstandings are rectified early. It also signals that we have been consistently listening.
You can apply these skills in any context but they are especially valuable when you are worried about someone and want to help them open up about what is on their mind. Listening doesn’t come easily to everyone, but we can get better at it with practice.
Download a printable copy of this information: Active listening skills