“Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak.” Epictetus
It’s obvious when someone isn’t listening. Their eyes glaze over and you can almost hear the inner monologue they’re having. “Oh, he just said Japan. I’ve been to Japan. Must mention that I’ve been to Japan.” But by leaping ahead and focusing on what to say next, you bring yourself out of the moment and stop tuning in to what’s being said.
This is just one of the many insights I’ve had during my training as a volunteer at The Listening Place, a charity that offers face to face support for people who are struggling with suicidal feelings.
I’ve always considered myself a good listener. Whether it be family, friends, or that little old lady at the post office, people seem to gravitate towards me with their problems. But after my first training session, I came to learn that the qualities I thought made me a good listener, namely giving advice or trying to cheer the person up, were actually quite distracting.
It’s surprisingly difficult to just sit there and listen, especially without trying to steer the conversation towards a desired outcome. But it’s possible to say a lot while saying very little. Just being a calming presence can be hugely beneficial for someone who doesn’t have anyone like that in their life.
So, with that in mind, here are five top tips I’ve picked up on how to be a better listener:
1) Don’t “feel” anything:
Never say “I know how you feel”, because the reality is you don’t know how they feel, and to say you do will only cause them to put their barriers up. Instead, ASK how they feel. If you get stuck or are unsure how to keep the conversation going, a useful tool you can use is TED, which stands for “Tell me more, Explain, Describe”. If someone says they’re feeling anxious, you could say “could you tell me a bit more about what you mean by “anxious”?” or “can you explain/describe “anxious” to me?”.
2) Never give advice:
If you give advice and they follow it, and their situation gets worse, you immediately lose their trust and the relationship is affected. The best thing you can do is keep asking enough questions about their situation in the hope that they will come to their own conclusions about what they need to do to move forward.
3) Silence is golden:
Don’t feel awkward if there are long periods of silence. More often than not, silence is simply them processing the conversation and coming up with more information to offer. If you interrupt their flow, you stop the thought dead in its tracks and miss whatever potential insight they may have had.
4) Stop asking so many questions!
Try not to crowd the conversation by constantly asking questions. Not only is it annoying for the other person, it also causes the conversation to jump around all over the place. Instead, give them enough space to stay in that moment, encouraging them by saying things like “of course”, “that sounds awful” or if you want them to elaborate on something, for example they might have just said that they’re feeling “down”, mirroring what they’ve just said; “you’re feeling down?”. This prompts them to elaborate on that feeling and explore it further.
5) Body language
80% of communication is non-verbal. You can tell when someone is giving you their full attention, and the difference it makes to how receptive you are is huge. Try not to fold your arms or look disinterested. Instead, use warm, open body language and give your full attention to the individual and the words they are saying. Using eye contact is good, but use it sparingly. If the person is receptive to it, that’s fine, but if they’re slightly unnerved by it, don’t keep trying to hold their gaze. Tone of voice is important as well. There’s a fine line between sounding caring and patronising, so be careful not to slip into the latter.
Listening is a skill, and with enough practice, you can get good at it. Four months in, I still make mistakes, but with each new session, I can feel myself getting better.
For more information, or if you know anyone in need of help, head over to The Listening Place.