5 Tips for Becoming a Better Listener

I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Bernstein’s work in the Wall Street Journal, and she wrote an interesting piece, “How Well Are You Listening? We’re Naturally Bad Listeners, Even With Loved Ones; Steps to Avoid ‘Burnout’.

Here are some of the key steps she says you need to take to become a better listener:

1. Look for hints that a person wants to talk—and signal your willingness to listen. My husband rarely wants to “talk,” but when he does, I put my book down flat in my lap to show I’m paying close attention (and to prevent myself from sneaking a look at the page).

2. Let the other person explain what’s on his or her mind. Acknowledge the reality of someone else’s feelings. For me, this is a key step. When I started acknowledging the reality of other people’s feelings, especially the negative feelings of my children, I saw a major improvement in communication. I remind myself: don’t deny feelings such as anger, irritation, fear, or reluctance; instead, articulate the other person’s point of view. “You don’t feel like going.” “You’re bored.” “Usually, you enjoy this, but right now you’re not in the mood.” This is harder than it sounds.

3. Encourage the person to elaborate by asking open-ended questions, making listening noises (turns out these are called “minimal encouragers”), sitting in a way that shows attentiveness, and making eye contact.

4. Paraphrase what someone said to show that you’ve understood his or her point.

5. Ask questions, and listen to try to help work on a possible solution—but don’t rush to fix things.

When it comes to the issue of listening well, the best book I’ve ever read on the subject is framed as a parenting book, but the advice it contains applies equally well to adults. I love this book: Faber and Mazlish’s How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. I’ve read it several times.

Speaking of books… Here’s a mistake I find myself making over and over again: when someone’s trying to explain some problem to me, I respond by making suggestions of books for that person to read.

Practically everything in life reminds me of something I’ve read, and when people are in a difficult situation, I’m often flooded with thoughts about relevant passages I’ve read or books that might be useful.

For instance, a friend just told me about her divorce, and I kept saying things like, “You should read Crazy Time; several people have told me what a great book that is when you’re getting a divorce.” Another friend was going through a truly staggering series of tragedies, and I couldn’t help sending her quotations that seemed relevant.

On the one hand, I’m sure my friends know that this is my idiosyncratic way of showing love and trying to be helpful, but on the other hand, I know I should be quiet and listen instead of saying, “Read this, read that!” Next time, I will hold myself back. I vow.

Have you found any strategies that have helped you be a better listener?

This article originally appeared on gretchenrubin.com. Reprinted with permission by the author.

Share your thoughts.

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199 responses to “5 Tips for Becoming a Better Listener”

  1. LOz says:

    Mel, you are describing me. Rarely if ever is there reciprocation with someone listening to ME. How can I get that to happen?

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  165. Priscilla Akhaze says:

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  183. Marc Wong says:

    I have a definition and guideline for listening:
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    And it goes with the following:
    Dialog, understanding, and synergy occur not when people talk to each other, but when they listen to each other.

    I think it this could do a lot of good if everyone was reminded of this at the beginning of meetings.

    Also, don’t tell people how to cope (or what books to read), let them talk about how they’re coping.

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  193. Lora says:

    I’m with ya, Mel!! Glad to know others feel the same way!

    • mm says:

      I advocate for your article on how to get extroverts to listen for a change.
      for me, often, a therapist of 35+ years, my company if often the best with the exception of my wife of 11 years who is a great listener and sharer too. 🙂

  194. gradcool says:

    I too am more of an introvert than extrovert but being in sales I have to put my extrovert hat on to do my job. I often feel like I am an actor playing a part, whether it be in front of a crowd giving a presentation or talking with a group of people at a conference. But what really yanks my chain is when I am talking and the other person just changes topic because they just thought of something and now the conversation becomes about them. On several occasions I have to say “as I was saying…” just to get back on topic. I also make it a point when another person gets interrupted by an extrovert to chime in and say “going back to what you were saying…”. Or “I am interested in what you were saying. Would you mind continuing?” You should see the looks of appreciation on their faces when I ask this. I think all people should be able to listen to some extent. If you are having to listen to a topic you really have no interest in, such as sports, then you should tell the person and offer an alternate subject. “I’m really not much of a sports fan but what really does fascinate me is the sports stadiums they play in. Those are some real feats of engineering.” A clue to know when you are speaking to a good listener is when you ask them to tell you about their recent trip and after they tell you about it they ask you about your recent trip and then shut up to listen. Some people just have to talk because they are uncomfortable with the silence. Then they should do as we do and practice dealing with it. We have to practice dealing with extroverts.

  195. Quinn says:

    Seriously? You’re giving introverts advice on listening? It’s what most of us specialize in doing most of our lives. Yeesh!

    • Allen says:

      Actually the information is helpful even for us introverts, okay maybe like 5% helpful, particularly when the person is talking on a subject I have ZERO interest in…like sports ?. But if I care about the person I’ll to show them am listening, instead of being in my own world (head) solving advanced calculus for professors

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