For over 20 years I’ve taught graduate students how to provide counseling and psychotherapy to address a wide array of mental health and emotional conditions. I’m quick to tell the students that one of the most important keys to helping people is to become a great listener. Unless you first really listen to someone and gain a clear understanding of their situation, history, current concerns and future goals, you won’t be a fully effective helper.
I’ve become increasingly convinced that we can all become better listeners if we learn and use some of the techniques and strategies employed by great therapists. Here are ten tips to consider if you want to take your listening skills up a notch or two and go for the title of “world-class listener.”
1) Commit to becoming a better listener
“The key to good listening isn’t technique, it’s desire. Until we truly want to understand the other person, we’ll never listen well.” – Steve Goodier
The first step is to commit to work on improving your listening skills. Make it a specific goal and follow through by trying out the strategies outlined below. With some practice and persistent effort, you will find your listening skills will steadily improve over time.
2) Reduce distractions
“Turn off the radio, TV, DVD, iPod, computer and cell phone. Then, listen.” – Gina Greenlee
Listening well requires an environment that is generally free of intrusive distractions. Being interrupted by the phone, the family dog or noisy kids does not make for a good situation to really listen to another person. Reduce or eliminate as many distractions as possible before starting to listen.
3) Allow enough time
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway
When planning an important conversation, allow enough time to respect both the person and the issue. Don’t delve into a serious topic when you have only ten minutes before your next meeting or obligation. If the conversation goes long and you run out of time, negotiate to resume the conversation at a specific time and place in the near future.
4) Consider the context
“There’s more than one way to tell each other things, and there’s more than one way to listen, too.” – Katherine Hannigan
Before starting the conversation, step back and look at the larger context. How you listen to a close friend or family member is a very different situation than listening to a co-worker, boss, student, or supervisee. Unique spoken or unspoken rules apply in each of these situations, so don’t ignore the generally expected boundaries or customs.
5) Be present and attentive
“Listening is a discipline. It’s all about being present at that moment in time.” – Chris Murray
Listening attentively is actually hard work. It’s difficult to maintain a steady focus on what the other person is saying, particularly if the conversation is lengthy or the topic is complex or sensitive. If you find yourself zoning out or not understanding, take a short break or ask the other person to repeat or clarify what they just said.
6) Remember that listening is NOT talking
“The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.” – Alfred Brendel
To state the obvious (which is a habit I actually find helpful in many situations), to listen to someone, you must stop talking. We all tend to interrupt, cajole, persuade and put in our two cents’ worth even when we profess to be listening. Save your comments and feedback for later. Listen. Just listen.
7) Seek first to understand
“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” – Ralph G. Nichols
The first goal of listening is to understand. By taking time to really appreciate and understand the other person’s circumstances, needs, and desires first, you build trust and convey you are truly interested in them and their welfare.
8) Reflect your understanding
“When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.” – Stephen Covey
After listening carefully, reflect what you have heard by paraphrasing or summarizing the other person’s statements. This demonstrates you were truly listening and understood their main issues. It also offers them a chance to correct any inaccuracies or mistakes you may have made in your reflections.
9) Don’t jump in with your advice
“You know how advice is. You only want it if it agrees with what you wanted to do anyway.” – John Steinbeck
After going through the previous steps, the door may now be open for you to offer feedback, comments, or advice. But before you jump in with your well-intentioned remarks, it never hurts to ask if feedback is in fact desired. Also consider that not giving any advice at all may be the best response in many situations.
10) Don’t get in over your head
“Reach out to help others when they need it; help them to find what they really need.” – Debasish Mridha
Sometimes when you listen to someone, you can quickly get into a difficult situation you aren’t equipped to handle. One such example is an issue where someone’s personal safety is potentially at risk due to interpersonal violence or suicidal thoughts. Such a scenario always requires professional assistance. Don’t hesitate to call for help.
Here’s a question: What qualities make someone an effective listener? Please leave a comment. Also please consider subscribing to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!