15 ways to be a better listener and connect more deeply with others
In part one of our listening skills series, we looked at the reasons why we can struggle to truly pay attention to and hear others. Now in part two, we’re sharing tips for how to improve on these skills…
Want to create better relationships and connections with people? Listening is a big part of that. Here are 15 tips for becoming a better listener:
Be present — put your phone away and try to reduce background distractions. Aim to set aside your own concerns for the moment and focus on the person in front of you.
Be quiet — when someone is sharing a problem it can be tempting to want to jump in and reply. You might want to tell them that you understand, share a similar problem that you’ve had, or suggest how to fix things. While these motivations are well-intentioned, it can sometimes result in the person feeling unheard. Instead, try to be patient and give them the time and space they need to say what they have to say.
Let go of any agendas — it’s natural to have your own needs, desires and goals when interacting with someone. We might want to show how knowledgeable we are or get our own way in a disagreement. Or we might want to help someone by showing them where their thinking or decision-making is wrong. But agendas can really get in the way of hearing someone fully, so try to set them aside.
Listen deeply — as well as listening to a person’s actual words, it can be helpful to notice their tone of voice, posture and facial expressions. It’s also useful to ‘listen’ to what they’re not saying — the things that they’re skipping over or leaving out. By tuning into these different layers of the conversation, we can gain a deeper understanding of things.
Listen expressively — if we stare at someone poker-faced, it’s probably not going to put them at ease and they won’t receive cues that what they’re saying is reaching us. Simple body language such as nodding, leaning forward and mirroring the person’s feelings through your facial expressions can help them to feel heard.
Listen empathetically — try to see the situation through the other person’s eyes. It’s all too easy to get stuck in our own narrow perspective of the world, with all its prejudices and assumptions. But by stepping into the other person’s viewpoint, you can gain much deeper insight and empathy.
Listen non-judgmentally — remember that we are all fragile, all flawed and all make mistakes. So when listening, try to offer the person what therapists call ‘unconditional positive regard’. Non-judgement can be healing and transforming in itself.
Listen to learn — every single person has something to teach us, so aim to be curious about what they are saying. Even if the topic doesn’t interest you too much, you can still aim to be interested in the person themselves. By understanding the world as they see it, you get to know them more deeply and develop a greater connection.
Listen actively — devised by psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson, active listening is a technique for ensuring that you properly understand what someone is saying. One aspect of this is checking in during conversational pauses to say ‘So, here’s what I think you’re telling me…’ The person can then confirm that you’re right or clarify further until you fully understand.
Give the person time to finish speaking — don’t be afraid of a momentary pause in conversation. Both therapists and journalists have a technique where, after a person has stopped talking, they wait for a few moments. This is because they know that people will sometimes say the most important thing during that pause. By being comfortable with silence and avoiding the urge to fill the air with chatter, we can sometimes get to the heart of the matter more quickly.
Don’t plan your response — if you’re rehearsing your reply in your head while someone is speaking, then you’re not being fully present. Instead, aim to be comfortable with not knowing how you’re going to respond. It’s perfectly okay to say, ‘That’s so tough, I don’t really know what to say’ or ‘I just need to think about what you’ve told me for a moment’.
Ask questions — when you say ‘That’s interesting. Tell me more about that’, or ‘And how do you feel about that?’, you’re showing that you are genuinely engaged. Questions can also reassure the person that you care and aren’t rushing to end the conversation.
Show them that you relate — it feels good to be understood. So even if someone shares a problem that’s totally outside of your own experience, you can still try to connect with their emotions (without going into your own story). For instance, ‘Yes, it’s horrible to feel so afraid’ or ‘I can imagine that made you feel really sad.’
Beware of the reassurance trap — this is a common pitfall that conversations can fall into when someone is worried or anxious. It might start with them saying, ‘What if I get made redundant’? At this point, it’s natural for you to want to respond reassuringly by saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’m sure that won’t happen’. To which the person can easily reply, ‘No, but what if I do?’ The conversation then becomes a cycle of worried statements and reassuring platitudes which they don’t really take in and that don’t lead to real comfort or resolution.
Aim to step outside of this trap by separating yourself from the worry and reassurance interplay. This could mean responding to the emotion by offering soothing and validation, rather than reassurance. For instance, ‘I understand you’re feeling anxious about this. I know it feels really overwhelming to feel so worried. I’m here, whatever happens.’ When their emotions have settled, you might help them see that they will be able to find a way through their difficulties. For instance, ‘Okay, so if the worst was to happen and you were made redundant, what would your next steps be?’ This way, you are encouraging them to move into a more balanced, capable, adult version of themselves.
Maintain healthy boundaries — having boundaries is an important part of listening. You don’t have to ‘save’ the person or try to magically fix their issue. And while it’s natural to feel empathy when someone is upset, try not to take their feelings on as your own. This can disrupt your ability to be fully present with them.
As we’ve explored, listening is a skill that has many different elements. It is also very powerful, as when someone truly hears you it can be transformative. If you can be that person to others, then you can be a real gift to the world. What’s more, at a time when many people feel atomised and isolated, spending time listening deeply to someone can create a connection that makes you both feel less alone.