How to Be a Good Listener
Updated: Apr 28, 2020
Sometimes, I call someone because I have something I simply need to share, and the only thing I need is for them to listen and not talk. Do you ever do that?
It's usually when my heart is heavy - after I've yelled at my kids or gotten frustrated with my husband - and all I want to do is share my shame with someone who understands. But it doesn't always work that way…
Most of us are fixers, you see? When a problem arises, most people want to help, give a solution or tell you what they think. BUT that's often not really what we need.
When we feel like we’re in trouble, what we really need is a good listener - not a fixer. We usually already know the solution deep down, and we just need to share how we feel about the situation so we can problem solve ourselves. We’re looking for reassurance - and sometimes guidance - but what really gives us the most value is to simply be listened to.
So, how can we become better listeners?
If you’re a natural fixer, it may be a little tough to break your habit! I’m honestly kind of a fixer myself - and I’m not going to lie, my own transition listening rather than fixing has been a journey, especially as an executive coach.
“Staying with the not knowing” is actually a main principle of coaching (Kline, N, Time to Think) and it’s something I’m constantly practicing at home and work. I’ve seen the impact it’s had on not only my family and friends but also my clients when I just let the other person talk, and I’ve learned from personal experience that it’s more helpful to give people the space to come to the solution themselves.
Are you ready to start listening and stop fixing? Here are my top tips to become a great listener:
Give them space + time to talk.
Be there for them in a non-judgmental way. The simple fact that you’re there to listen is enough. Just take in what they say and keep your opinions to yourself.
Tell them they’re human by normalising.
Repeat the problem they tell you back to them in their own words. This shows them that you’re really listening and makes them feel heard. Sometimes, hearing a problem again from someone else and asking questions - such as “If someone else was going through what you just experienced, what advice would you give them?” - can help people rationalize their emotions + thoughts.
Acknowledge their feelings.
Try to understand where they’re coming from. Validate their feelings so they know you understand. Say things like “I can imagine it must be tough for you” or “I just cannot imagine what you are going through.”
It’s easy to jump to conclusions about what they think or feel. Let them surprise you by what they’re actually thinking; it may be different than what you initially thought! One of my previous colleagues in finance used to tell me: “Assumptions are your worst enemy.” Keep your conclusion-jumping in check!
Don’t give your opinion too quickly.
The process of thinking through things is very slow and powerful, and it shouldn’t be interrupted too quickly. Always try to create space for the issue and their thoughts.
Even when the person has stopped talking and you think she’s waiting for your input… Wait. Count to 5 (Mississippi , yes Ross!). There may be something else that needs to be said.
If you’re a fixer like me, all these tips might be tough to implement at first, but it doesn’t mean
you will not have your moment to give your opinion. Just try to “stay with the not knowing” a little longer each time, and it will become easier, I promise.
But, what if you’re asked to give your opinion straightaway?
I believe you should still try these tips first. Sometimes, people are asking for your opinion because they want reassurance, and they may not be ready for your true opinion.
Pause. Ask them to share more. Then give your opinion after that. Won’t you be in a better position to give your opinion once you know the whole picture anyways?
And what if you’re the one with a problem who needs a good listener?
Make a mental list of people you call to discuss your troubles. Which friends, family members and colleagues do you feel comfortable sharing with?
Different people are better for different issues - relationship, family, work, etc - and you know who they are. Your spouse and your best friend don’t need to be the best at helping you with
everything. I like to say, expect your coach to be a generalist and your friends to be specialists.
Furthermore, try to realize who the “fixers” are in your life. If you call someone who’s always trying to fix rather than listen, they won’t always be very helpful when you’re feeling emotional, especially if they’re judgemental and/or jump to conclusions straightaway. Similarly, if you call a best friend, the chances are that she will always be on your side and might not give you an honest opinion. It may feel good, but it might not be for the best. So choose your listeners wisely considering what you need at the time.
Let’s bear in mind that we’re all different. Some people give their opinions, thoughts and feedback more quickly than others. It’s a learning process of getting to know yourself and those around you. Practice being a better listener yourself, and choose your confidants wisely.