Counsellor at the Royal Trinity Hospice Katharina Wolf says…
Remember, silence is golden. Very often our instinct is to fill a silence, however, silences are important, as a lot of thinking and reflecting can be done in them. Fight the urge to end your own feelings of awkwardness and give the speaker the options to break the silence themselves.
Don’t make it about you. Empathising is great, but don't try to offer a story of your own that is similar to the person you are listening to in order to prove you relate. This is not about you and your experience. While you might have been in a similar situation, experiencing is always unique; stay with their experience and realise this is not about you.
Read body language and verbal cues. It’s crucial to be attentive without being confrontational, i.e. don’t stare intensely into the speaker's eyes but adopt a relaxed position and maintain casual eye contact. Non-verbal (nodding) and verbal cues (“Yes, I see.”) are to be encouraged, especially when validating an experience, e.g. “This must have been hard for you”.
Never interrupt. Instead, wait for a pause if you want to ask questions or sometimes just hold your thought – when the opportunity presents itself and the question is still relevant, refer back to it. It shows you’re paying attention and really want to understand the listener. Paraphrasing is also a great tool to demonstrate listening skills, as you clarify and demonstrate you’ve been listening.
Practice ‘advanced’ or ‘active’ listening. This is all about hearing the things that are not being said. Be mindful of the language being used or the way the words are being spoken. This provides clues to the emotional state of the speaker. Also, make sure your mind doesn't wander; listening is hard sometimes and requires a lot of mental effort, so don't be surprised if you feel tired afterwards.
Coach & therapist from Your Happy Heart Coach Tess Leigh-Phillips says…
Don’t try to fix everything. Pure listening is golden, but it happens rarely, as most of us are trying to solve something, thinking of our reply and getting distracted. Don’t worry about what you are going to say next. Giving someone this level of attention without your own opinion or worries coming into it will mean the world to them.
Be present. It should go without saying, but stay in the moment with the speaker. Try not to project into the future or what you might be doing later. In this moment just let them express themselves and try not to be distracted. You’ll find it gets easier with practice.
Ask questions and reflect. Listen, and then clarify what you have heard: “So, what you are saying is?” “Do you mean this?” “So, it feels like this?” Reflecting back and getting really clear on what the person is saying builds trust and rapport and makes the other person feel like what they are saying is of real value.
Learn to listen to yourself first. Practice sitting with yourself, your own thoughts, fears, feelings. Listen to your body and different sensations. Practice gentle kindness to yourself, show yourself compassion. If you can do this, you will be able to show up to any conversation with much more patience and interest than if you are in your own state of chaos and unease.
Psychologist at The Harley Street Wellbeing Clinic Professor Margareta James says…
Stay curious. When we’re really listening to someone, we become curious. Curious to understand and to find out more – it’s what gives them the opportunity to share with us. Listeners are also completely focused on the speaker. How? In the way they look at them and also with their facial reactions. They’re not distracted by anything else (messages, looking at their watch or looking around) – they look at the speaker and connect with them in that moment of sharing.
Don’t be afraid to explore. If you choose to ask questions back, especially when someone is talking about something difficult, a great listener asks exploring questions such as “What else?” “How?” “When?” That way, the other person can freely express more and feel free to continue speaking. The key is to avoid yes or no questions as they tend to shut down the conversation.
Keep an open mind. Good listeners are people who won’t jump to conclusions and be judgemental about what the speaker is saying. They know how to make people feel safe to talk about anything.
Check your body language. Even if you don’t say certain things, your body will communicate in ways you perhaps didn’t intend to, and it will be clear if you are truly listening. People who really connect while having a conversation tend to mirror each other’s body postures and people who are truly listening tend to focus and look at the person who is speaking – and adjust their glance according to what is being said. Their emotions can also be easily read from their facial expressions. In short, they connect with the person who’s speaking and make them feel as comfortable as possible.
Throw out the script. Acknowledging what someone is saying doesn’t mean you agree, but it should demonstrate you are paying attention to what they’re saying, making them feel heard, which is the most important thing. Just bear in mind you’ll only become a better listener only if you do this in a genuine way. Don’t try to plan too much – be it your body language (mirroring) or facial expressions – as it won’t feel natural and you’ll be preoccupied.
Principal psychologist from DH Consulting Dannielle Haig says…
Start with small changes. Before you can learn a new skill, you need to know where you are starting from. Make a concerted effort to pay attention to the next conversation that you have, whether it’s with the hairdresser, your client, your friends, partner, whoever. Are you waiting for someone to finish speaking so you can start talking? Are you cutting in before someone else has a chance to finish their sentence? Are you one-upping your friend’s stories? Are you quietly listening and giving that person a chance to be open? Are you listening to their words, observing their body language and being curious to ask them meaningful questions? What is your listening style?
Give them the floor. Like with most things, practice makes perfect. A great practice for active listening is with meaningful questions. Decide when you next have a conversation with someone, it’s all going to be about the other person. You are not going to interrupt with an anecdote or personal comparison. Give the floor to your companion whoever that may be. You will notice that now you’ve psychologically relinquished the need to speak about yourself that you have more attention to give your counterpart and to start asking questions.
Be interesting by being interested in others. It’s okay to have a private side to yourself you don’t share with anyone. In a world where we seem to know the ins and outs of everyone’s lives (thanks to social media) it seems normal to share our whole selves with the whole world. Good company is being interested in others and not merely handing over your deepest secrets and all your heart’s desires and anecdotes.
Commit to learning. Until you listen, you have no clue about what you don’t know. Start to be curious about other people and their ideas, hobbies, backgrounds etc. It’s rather exciting to learn about something completely new, you may not agree with the person or share the same passion but it’s always good to stretch your brain by gaining knowledge and new ways of thinking. There is also the opportunity to learn about yourself in listening to what others have experienced and know to find a connection to yourself that you didn’t know was there.
Work on your own self-esteem. The people you will have most enjoyed speaking to will probably have been confident and assured in themselves. This is because confident people are the most capable of listening to others without fear of being threatened, overshadowed, or not acknowledged. If you fill spaces in conversation or don’t allow for any silences, then you may want to start building your own self-esteem as it will allow you to get comfortable with silence so you can really listen to others.
Founder of online couples therapy platform The Relationship Paradigm Neil Wilkie says…
Show interest. Ask questions about the other person’s viewpoint. You want to know as much as you can about their difficulties and successes. Such questions might include: “What’s this like for you?” “What do you feel about this?” “What’s happening for you now?” “And anything else?”
Express empathy. Try to put yourself in their shoes to feel at least a part of what they’re feeling and express your compassion for them. Statements of empathy sound like this: “You must be so upset/pleased about that.” “I’d be happy/worried about that too.” “That sounds so sad/encouraging for you.” “That sounds scary/fun.”
Don’t side with the enemy. When your partner or a friend complains about someone else, do not side with the ‘other’. This will only make your partner feel attacked, and like a fool for being open with you. Instead, take your partner’s side. It can be tricky if you agree with the issue the ‘enemy’ has raised, though. So, find something in the situation to empathise with, such as their feelings, even if not about the issue itself.
Ask that ‘feeling’ question. Try asking “What do you feel about this?” to deepen your understanding of their emotions. You can feel more than one feeling at once, so follow up asking “And anything else?” until the answer is no. It’s these moments of shared emotions which help to form and re-form the bonds that keep relationships alive.
Don’t rush. Switch off that voice in your head that is trying to get to the bottom of the issue. You may want to help them by giving them the answer. But don’t do it: it will only make them feel like they’re not smart enough to think of their own solutions. Instead, listen, ask questions, empathise and wait for their cue when they request help. This is what a ‘plea for help’ sounds like: “What do you think I should do?” “I really need your advice on this.” Only at that point is it okay to offer your suggestions.
Katharina Wolf is a counsellor at the Royal Trinity Hospice. Tess Leigh-Phillips is a coach & therapist from Your Happy Heart Coach. Professor Margareta James is a psychologist at The Harley Street Wellbeing Clinic. Dannielle Haig is a principal psychologist at DH Consulting. Neil Wilkie is a relationship expert, psychotherapist, author of the Relationship Paradigm series of books and creator of the online therapy platform, The Relationship Paradigm.
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