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Good listeners attract people like an ice cream truck attracts kids. Why? Good listeners offer goodies even better than fudgesicles (if that’s even possible): validation, affirmation, and trust. In addition, skilled listening is one-half of good communication, which is the foundation of any healthy relationship.
But being a good listener goes way beyond just not interrupting or nodding your head until it’s your turn to talk. Here are 5 ways to make your conversation partner feel like you’re fully tuned in to their personal radio station.
Listening Skill #1: Create safety.
Making your conversation partner feel safe starts with two things: an open mind and keeping judgment to yourself. Just as immersing yourself in a novel requires suspension of disbelief, immersing yourself in listening requires suspension of unsolicited opinions or advice. And while judgments may pop into your head—you’re human after all—set them to the side while you try…
Listening Skill #2: Ask questions to follow your natural curiosity.
This is my favorite part of listening. When your brain is piqued, ask questions. Think like a journalist and ask what, when, where, why, how. Ask for examples. Ask for details. Following your natural curiosity by asking questions not only demonstrates you are listening and interested, but almost always yields an intriguing story.
For instance, this past week, the very first sentence a new client said to me was: “I think my problems started when the university administration told me getting stalked was my fault.” Whoa! Sentences like these are packed with meaning like a treasure chest is packed with valuables. Opening them up and digging around yields gems of great interest and great value.
Listening Skill #3: Listen with your whole body.
In many a kindergarten classroom, teachers emphasize something called “whole body listening.” It goes like this: use your eyes to watch nonverbals, your brain to think about what is being said, your heart to feel emotions, and keep the rest of your body quiet to show respect.
I love that listening gets formally taught to kids, but like the quadratic equation or the difference between fission and fusion, many of us lose it over time, especially as life gets busy. The result? We often try to multitask while listening—we half-listen while getting stuff done or staring at a screen.
But up to 80% of what we communicate comes from nonverbal cues like facial expressions, gestures, and posture. So when we multitask while listening, we miss all these signals. But refraining from multitasking is hard. Why? Because listening is largely internal, it appears passive. It may not feel like an activity unto itself. Therefore, involve your whole body to make listening conscious for you and perceptible for your conversation partner.
Listening Skill #4: Validate with simple phrases.
When people feel invalidated or otherwise rebuked or rejected, they “act out” their feelings in order to communicate them in a different way. Sulking, tantrums, and the like—whether by toddlers or adults—are simply a way to say that they feel unheard.
So how to show you’ve heard someone? Use skills one through three, of course, but also keep in your back pocket some validating words and phrases. Like what, you ask?
- Of course.
- That makes sense.
- For sure.
All of these statements are short—three words or fewer—but all of them affirm a person’s experience or feelings as worthy and accepted—the very definition of validation. In conversation, incorporating those little phrases: “Of course you feel that way” or “That makes total sense” doesn’t necessarily convey agreement, but it does convey something even bigger: acceptance.
Listen to what’s not being said.
Listening Skill #5: Listen to what’s underneath the words.
Ready for ninja-level listening? Listen to what’s not being said. Maybe the speaker’s face doesn’t match their words—perhaps they smile while talking about horrible, vulnerable things. Maybe their body language changes suddenly—perhaps they cross their arms and slump their shoulders forward. Maybe their tone shifts—perhaps they start to sound defensive, skeptical, or mocking. What to do? You already have all the tools—follow your natural curiosity, listen with your whole body, and refrain from judging so they feel safe.
All in all, listening well is simply a matter of tuning in. Tune in to the person who’s speaking, tune in to your own curiosity, and tune in to your own possible judgments (and squash them before they fall out your mouth).
Good listening can be hard at first—it’s much more tempting to do something else simultaneously, talk about your own experience, or offer advice (which, when you think about it, is a form of judgment—”here’s what you should do”). But becoming a good listener is worth the practice. Soon, you’ll be so good at listening you’ll do it without saying a word.