Do you think you're a good listener? I bet most of us like to think we are but are we aware of what being a good listener actually takes? And do we ever take the time to consciously practice it? As we grow up we learn to read, write and speak and naturally, listening follows suit but do you ever remembering having any listening lessons?
Listening is such an underrated aspect of communication, it's the forgotten half. We all know how to get our points across and how to express ourselves but do we really know how receive that from someone else? In this post, I'll share the benefits of improving your listening skills and why you might want to do that. I'll also share some top skills and tips to help you be the best listener!
Why Improve Your Listening Skills?
Listening to someone, like really listening involves much more than just hearing them speak. I'm sure we've all experienced a time when we've been talking to a friend and they're not really listening or it looks like they are but you know, that mentally, they're somewhere else... Really listening to someone is a conscious process that you actively take part in and that's why this type of listening is called 'active listening'. It requires being present (in the moment) and the use of certain skills.
If you've been trained in any helping professions or customer service, you've probably heard of 'active listening' before but it doesn't have to be restricted to only these fields. We can all learn how to use active listening skills in our everyday life to improve our relationships and our communication skills!
But this sounds like EFFORT. So why do it?
This might seem obvious but when we're better able to communicate (speaking AND listening), it's likely we'll also improve our relationships. When we're able to really listen to someone else, especially if they're distressed, they'll likely feel more supported and understood, leading to more trust and empathy in the relationship. It's a win win - they feel supported and your relationship is strengthened!
A study by Faye Doell (2003) showed that there are two different types of listening: “listening to understand” and “listening to respond.” Those who “listen to understand” have greater satisfaction in their interpersonal relationships than others. While people may think they are listening to understand, what they’re really doing is waiting to respond (Raab, 2017)
"Are you listening to understand or listening to respond?"
If you work in a supervisory or management position then active listening may be very beneficial in developing work based relationships and trust from employees/colleagues. Active listening will help you build trust through showing empathy and allow you to problem solve more effectively by understanding the problem better.
Mental health awareness has come to the forefront of conversations in recent years and rightly so. In my opinion (and I'm sure many others), mental health education has been overlooked and appropriate support is too often difficult to access. However, many people do want to reach out for help. If we look at the protective factors (things that keep someone safe) in suicide, they include having strong and supportive social connections (www.mentalhealth.org.uk) with the statistics showing that most people who do die by suicide, do reach out for support beforehand (Jason Chare, 2013).
Of course, we're not just talking about those who are suicidal. We can provide effective support to those in our lives who need it before this point is reached. Whether that is when their relationship breaks down, their mental health worsens or when they fail an exam for example - whatever the issue is, we can learn to provide effective support before someone reaches crisis point through 'active listening'.**
So they seem like some pretty great benefits in improving our listening skills, but how can we actually do it?
How to Improve Your Listening Skills
The good news is, there are some simple skills you can practise that will immediately help you be a better listener and you don't have to use them all every time!
Very simply, this means paying attention to the person who's talking in the moment. Try not to let your mind wander as they're talking or think about what you're going to say next. Lucky for you, the following skills will help you show that you're being present and paying attention.
This might seem counterintuitive and it's arguably the skill that people struggle with most when practising 'active listening'. The reason it can be a struggle is that we often feel uncomfortable with silence - we have an urge to fill it. And when we fill it, we usually want to fill it with advice or a relatable story. Both of which, take the focus away from the person talking.
As well as being one of the more difficult skills to get comfortable with, silence is also one of the most important. Why? Because it demonstrates to the other person that this is their time and space. It's not about you, it's about them. It's a signal to say, 'you talk'.
Using open questions encourages the other person to open up and explore what's going on for them further. Example of open questions may include:
'how did you feel about that?'
'can you tell me more about what happened?'
'what was going through your mind at the time?'
'Why' can also be a helpful question, for example 'why do you think you reacted in that way?' because it prompts further exploration but a word of warning - 'why' can often feel accusatory or interrogatory. Is there a different way you could phrase the question without using why?
This just means you're making sure you're understanding correctly. You could ask questions like 'am I right in understanding it like X?' or 'just remind who that person is again?' On top of making sure you're on the right track, it also demonstrates to the other person that you actually care - you're interested in what they're saying and you care about getting it right. It also shows that you're being present.
Try not to judge what the other person is saying or form opinions about the content of the conversation. Showing that you're being non-judgemental helps a person feel accepted and safe which enhances trust and encourages the person to continue talking/opening up. You might not agree with it or would have done things differently, but remember you're trying to see things from their perspective, not your own.
This just means reflecting back what the other person has said. You don't have all the facts so can't know the accuracy of what's been said BUT the one thing that is always true - the feelings. As Jason Chare explains in his TED Talk, someone might be upset about what his partner has said but it's not the exact words that were said that are important as such. What's key here, is the way the person feels about what was said.
Other person: I felt really terrible about the whole thing
You: You felt really terrible
Reflecting back demonstrates the fact that you're being present and also that you're paying attention. It might seem a little strange at first but that's only because we're not used to doing it in normal conversation - give it a go, it makes a big difference! Paraphrasing and summarising (repeating back a condensed version of what's been said) also have the same effect. All 3 can also be used to clarify that your understanding is correct whilst showing that you're paying attention.
Another nice and easy one. Try and keep your body language open and relaxed. This helps the other person feel relaxed and supported. Also try and make eye contact - not to say you have to stare them down but eye contact creates connection.
Ask them if they want advice or if they just want to be listened to - know what kind of conversation you're having from the start!
Remember you don't have to have the answers and you can tell the person that. If you like, you can suggest that you'll find a way forward together (if that's what they want!)
You don't have to respond immediately - if you're pausing to think about what someone's said and are processing the information, just tell them that! For example: 'I'm just thinking about what you said'
If you don't know what to say, tell them that.
After reading this, I'm sure you've identified skills that you naturally use without having realised before! Yay, go you! Hopefully though, you've also identified skills that could be improved or used more, so you can level up your listening even further!
If you can practise just some of these skills when supporting someone else, you'll find that your conversations become more effective and that your relationships improve. This doesn't mean that EVERY conversation has to use active listening - it's hard work and it's a skill that you choose to use. Some conversations are just that - conversations! You probably don't need to use your active listening skills when talking about what you watched on Netflix last night or what you're having for dinner!
I hope this helps support you next time you want to be there for someone else in the best way you can.
Much love on your listening adventures!
**This doesn't mean you have to take on the emotional weight and responsibility of supporting someone through their difficulties on your own. I also want to highlight the importance of encouraging the person to seek support from trained professionals like their GP or a therapist. There are also many resources you can signpost a person to, for help with their particular problem. I have included a link to international crisis lines below and some UK based organisations.
Amy is a UK Tarot reader and trainee counsellor. She is passionate about mental health, emotional support and living in a way that’s authentic and sustainable. She combines alternative tools like Tarot with tried and tested, evidence based strategies to give people effective self-help and personal development tools. Amy wants to support others in empowering them to take control of their mental and emotional health so they can be the experts on themselves!
International Crisis Lines: https://www.therapyroute.com/article/helplines-suicide-hotlines-and-crisis-lines-from-around-the-world
Samaritans (helpline/crisis line): https://www.samaritans.org/
Phone: 116 123
Mind (signposting service + resources): https://www.mind.org.uk/
Infoline: 0300 123 3393
Cruse (bereavement helpline + counselling): https://www.cruse.org.uk/
Phone: 0808 808 1677
Beat (eating disorder helping + resources): https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/support-services/myself
Helpline: 0808 801 0677
Studentline: 0808 801 0811
Youthline: 0808 801 0711
Online Support (chat, groups, peer): https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/support-services/myself/online
Papyrus (young person suicide support, under 35 years)
Call: 0800 068 4141
Call: 0800 9177 650
Jason Chare (2013) A Case for Active Listening: Jason Chare at TEDxTokyoTeachers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwEltOeW9aY&ab_channel=TEDxTalks