Here’s What Good Listeners Do
Really hearing what people are telling you may be the key to improving your relationships—and boosting your self-esteem. Here's how to become a better listener.
We all know that listening to others is crucial—it helps you become a better co-worker, friend, parent, and partner. And being a good listener sounds pretty simple. “It’s setting aside your own agenda and tuning into the other person and making an effort to understand what they are trying to communicate,” says Michael P. Nichols, author of The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships.
The problem? “Most of us think we’re pretty good listeners,” says Nichols. Sadly, though, we all have bad habits that stem from all-too-human reflexes like jumping in too quickly with a response. And while sometimes that’s okay, during a particularly emotional conversation, it’s not—and that can get in the way of our relationships.
The good news—you can overcome these challenges and become the listener everyone turns to and transform your relationships. To help you do it, our panel of experts identified common challenges when it comes to listening and fixes you can make.
You have something to say too
“We all have stories to tell and things to talk about. So it’s difficult for most of us to set that aside. Often we’re listening but we’re waiting our turn,” says Nichols. Even if you’re not actually interrupting to tell your news, you may just be so eager to take your turn you’re not really paying attention.
Other reasons for interrupting: “Sometimes people are worried they’re not going to remember what they want to say, or they get excited about what they want to say, so they don’t wait for the speaker to finish,” Nixaly Leonardo, New York-based psychotherapist and the author of Active Listening Techniques: 30 Practical Tools to Hone Your Communication Skills.
Wait a beat, suggests Anna Sale, author of Let’s Talk About Hard Things, and host of the WNYC podcast Death, Sex & Money, a show that talks about tough topics we all deal with in daily life. Sale, who compares this pause to a musical beat, says she learned the technique when she was a public radio reporter. “It was more a technical practice that I then learned had a really powerful, emotional impact. I just wait and to see what happens next.”
Two things can happen during that pause. “The person I’m talking to usually adds another layer to what they were just saying and often it’s a really interesting layer,” she notes. “And sometimes they won’t fill the space. And that’s also interesting because that suggests a certain clarity that they have said what they needed to say,” she adds.
It’s also more important to focus on the whole rather than the parts and comment on the entire story, says Leonardo. “Take a moment after the speaker is done to reflect on the message and come up with an appropriate response.”
It’s tough to listen if someone’s upset
We have trouble listening to people who have a problem or are unhappy, says Nichols. “We want to fix their problem rather than listening to them talk about it. So we often offer advice that may not be wanted,” he says.
“And if someone is upset, it’s painful to be in their presence. So, although we may try to listen, we end up trying to say things to make people not feel that way—’It’ll be all right’ or ‘You tried your best'” Nichols says.
We also have been socialized to be polite in the face of uncomfortable topics, says Sale. When somebody is disclosing something painful or upsetting, we often have the impulse to try to sidestep the revelation and go back to the comfortable territory because we think that’s a way to show we care, she notes.
First, try to rid yourself of the habit of trying to fix someone’s problems unless they ask you for help. Otherwise, they’re not going to feel heard. Ditto when you try to say something soothing in the face of their sadness. But you have to say something. “It’s important to acknowledge by saying something, so the person knows that you’re hearing them. An unacknowledged response is like an unanswered letter or text,” notes Nichols.
“Something I’ve learned to do in interviews and in life is to say first, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,'” says Sale, which acknowledges whatever pain the person is expressing. “Then you can say, ‘Is it okay if I ask you a few more questions about that’ or ‘Do you want to say more about that?’ That keeps the door open so that they can say more because otherwise what you’re doing is you’re shutting that door and then they have to keep carrying that pain by themselves,” she explains.
You get distracted easily
“The pitter-patter of conversation is just faster than what good listening requires,” says Sale. This is especially true when you’re trading info or plans about your day. “We’re speaking in bold bullet points to one another,” she notes.
Technology also makes it hard to listen—our phones buzz or beep with texts so it’s tough to concentrate—and we’re usually trying to do more than one thing at a time, she adds.
Not every conversation demands active listening. Active listening means you make an effort to show you’re engaged, Leonardo explains. You do this by a series of techniques, like using nonverbal cues (like nodding your head or making eye contact), and labeling and validating the person’s emotions (“You seem really mad” or “It’s okay to feel frustrated about that”), she adds.
“In everyday light conversation, it’s not necessary to restrain yourself entirely. I mean, if you tell me a little story about your cat and it doesn’t seem earth-shattering, I might respond with a little story about my cat,” Nichols says. “But it’s important to listen to people you care about and people who are talking about something they have strong feelings about,” Nichols notes, adding that those powerful emotions can include happy or exciting events (like getting engaged) as well as sad ones.
That’s when you want to suspend your agenda (and bad habits) and tune into the other person.
You shut down the conversation
Sometimes when someone’s speaking, our instinct is to say, “Okay, I got it,” or “I know, I’m sure that was tough.” And that ends the conversation, or at least that part of it, and tells your partner or friend that it’s time to move on.
“You don’t want your acknowledgment to close off the discussion,” says Nichols.
Don’t make comments that end with a period, says Nichols. Instead, let people know by making an effort by asking them questions. “With a question mark in your voice, you’re inviting the person to confirm that your understanding is correct or to elaborate or correct it,” Nichols explains.
Open-ended questions can also invite a speaker to say more. “I think of open-ended questions as the question version of what it feels like to have someone lean in towards you,” Sale explains. “If someone describes something to me and it’s something I have never experienced, I will just say something like, ‘Oh my gosh, what was that like?’ because it’s conveying this curiosity to know more about what the person is talking about.” That’s different than asking a question that has the answer embedded in it or gives someone a choice (“Was that scary or exciting for you?”).
An open-ended question like “What do you think or feel about that?” lets you create more room for there to be a broader spectrum of details, Sale notes. Another way to invite people to say more is to repeat their words. “If there’s a phrase that someone used to explain something that sticks out—if it’s particularly evocative or words that I wouldn’t have chosen myself—I will repeat them back to the person and say, ‘That’s interesting that you said this. Can you tell me more about that?'” she explains.
You’re reacting too defensively
Listening can be especially tough when the topic is complicated, has high stakes, or involves conflict in some way—say, a discussion about who’s shouldering more kid-care in your house or how you’re going to save for a decent down payment. “You can quickly move into the mode of reacting and competing for who’s going to win the conversation,” Sale notes. “So I’m not thinking, ‘Tell me more about that point’—I’m thinking, ‘Aha! Here’s the way I’m going to come back with my argument.'”
The result: It shuts down the interaction and leaves people feeling unheard.
Hold off saying you disagree—which only turns the discussion into a battle—and ask more questions instead. When you do that, says Sale, you’re indicating that you truly want to figure out what that person is saying. You can even remark, “This is interesting to me because it’s not how I would respond or what I think, so I’m going to ask more questions about that.” And then you can explain your point of view.
Or take a time out when you realize you’ve stopped hearing what the other person says, suggests Sale. “I will say things like, ‘Oh, I’m really tired and I’m not going to be able to talk about this in a way that’s not going to cause more stress,” she says. “It just allows me to narrate to the person and to myself when I’m not listening in the way that I want to and to take responsibility for that,” she adds.
All that takes discipline, but it’s worth it, says Sale. “In every important relationship in our lives, there’s disappointment and differences of opinions. By putting in the extra time and choosing your words carefully for how you express that disagreement, you can make a little bit more room for the differences and disagreement inside your relationship.”
The benefits of being a better listener
The art of being a good listener also comes with some benefits for you and your relationships.
Leads to deeper relationships
“Listening is loving,” says Sale. “It’s saying, ‘I want to hear what you have to tell me even if things are getting heated or someone is telling me something painful.”
Another plus: You’re getting to know someone more deeply and discovering new things about them, even if you’ve known them for years. “When people feel heard, they feel connected and cared for,” says Leonardo. “As a result, they’re more likely to want to be around you, reach out to you for support, and also want to give you the same attention you give them.”
Makes life more interesting
“Life is so much more interesting when I preserve the space to be challenged, to have my impulses and opinions challenged,” says Sale. “And it’s just more interesting when you can make room for that variety instead of going into a conversation with the intent of confirming what you thought before the talking even started,” she says.
When you show an interest in others by listening to them without interrupting or brushing past what they say, it improves the way they see you, says Leonardo. “We feel good about ourselves as a result of having more people in our lives who care about and respect us.”
Helps you set boundaries
When we’re good listeners, we show people that we care and have good intentions—and that can gain their trust so when we need to set a boundary (saying “no,” for instance) it’s easier to do so, says Leonardo.