“Where do you want to go for dinner?” my husband asked, popping into my office as I finished up an email. “Yep,” I replied. He snorted. “And you think I’m a bad listener.”
There are so many ways to be a terrible listener. It’s just so easy. Like me, you can be easily prone to distractions, whether it’s email or the deluge of thoughts in your head. The latter is particularly relevant for people who struggle with social anxiety, says Joel Minden, a licensed clinical psychologist. “Instead of listening, they spend too much time worrying about others’ judgments.”
Or maybe you’re the type of bad listener who hears exactly what someone has said, but doesn’t quite interpret it the right way. “Some people are good listeners, but their responses to comments create the impression that they’re thinking more about their own needs than those of their conversation partner,” Minden says. “When someone shares an idea that’s connected to a strong negative emotion, responses like ‘You’ll get over it’ or ‘That doesn’t sound so bad’ can seem insensitive. If someone is enthusiastic about a topic, changing the subject too quickly can have a similar effect.”
If your listening skills are lackluster, a good friend or a spouse might tell you point blank. In other scenarios, you can look for social cues. “If people cut your conversations short or their demeanor changes when you attempt to listen, it’s important to pay attention to cues that your conversation partner is annoyed, shutting down emotionally, or reluctant to share information,” Minden says. If you have a hunch your skills need improving, we’ve got a few pointers, depending on your level of commitment. Listen up.
How to be a good listener
Listening 101 is straightforward, but it’s surprising how many people don’t follow the rules of everyday conversation. It should go without saying, but if you want to be a good listener, avoid interrupting or abruptly changing the subject.
Eye contact is another attribute of a good listener. “But don’t make too much,” Minden warns. “Just avoid looking elsewhere when you see something or someone else who’s interesting.” While you’re at it, embrace a little mirroring: Match your facial and emotional expressions to the speaker and the content, Minden suggests, and nod from time to time to show you’re following along.
How to be a better listener
If you want to take your listening skills to the next level, practice your interviewing skills. In other words, ask questions that show you’re genuinely interested in learning about the person speaking. “Remember that people who ask questions are often viewed by others as good listeners,” Minden says. “By asking questions early in a conversation, you’re making it clear that learning about the other person is a priority and you’re not just there to talk about yourself.”
Pay close attention to details that might help you with follow-up questions, too. If your co-worker is recounting their trip to Italy and they mention some delicious gnocchi they had at a restaurant right outside Rome, you might ask if they had ever had gnocchi before. Was this gnocchi different? How did they serve it? At the same time, you don’t want to interrogate your co-worker about potato dumplings. Too many questions can make people feel uneasy, so try to find a balance between asking relevant questions and interjecting with your own experience. For example, That sounds amazing, I’ve always wanted to learn how to make gnocchi. Did they make it in-house? “A good rule of thumb is to make one statement for every two questions you ask,” Minden suggests.
How to be the best listener
Being a truly excellent listener has everything to do with empathy. Minden suggests using reflective responses, a concept popularized by the psychologist Carl Rogers. Framework from MIT pinpoints three main traits of reflective responses. First, you are reflecting the speaker’s emotions. So if your best friend complains about an experience at work, you would say something like, Right, I get it. You felt anxious and cornered because you had to give a last-minute presentation, right? Second, instead of leading a conversation, reflective responses require you to, y’know, respond. So instead of making the conversation about your own point of view, you allow it to follow the path of the speaker’s thoughts, opinions, and emotions. Finally, you respond not to the content of the conversation, but to the emotion — how the speaker feels about the subject.
“Reflective responses involve paraphrasing what you hear and capturing the underlying emotion in someone’s statement,” Minden says. “The responses become even more powerful if you’re able to extend an idea to show that you’re listening carefully, connecting important pieces of information, and trying to move the conversation along.”
And you know that thing where the speaker just wants to vent but the listener keeps offering solutions? Sometimes you try to fix the problem when all the speaker needs is a little empathy. A better way to listen? Try reflective responses instead. Let’s say your partner is stressed with all of the projects she’s juggling at work. Instead of telling her she needs to have a meeting with her boss, which is painfully obvious, a better, more reflective response that shows you’re listening might be, “You have so much on your plate and it’s hard to keep pushing forward” or “That presentation your boss just asked you to give at next week’s meeting came at a pretty bad time.”
“This comment essentially restates her original idea, but the language is changed to show that you’re not just providing a canned, verbatim response,” Minden says. Not only does this technique show you’re an excellent listener, it also shows the speaker you want to connect on an emotional level that’s free of judgment.
A word of caution, however: Poorly crafted and overused reflective responses can come across as heavy-handed and, well, corny, Minden warns. “So you’re saying life is hard right now,” might be a bit much if your partner is just annoyed about putting together a PowerPoint.
“Try to sprinkle them into conversations when you think you’re talking too much about yourself or otherwise not doing a solid job of listening,” he says. “With practice, you’re likely to find that others appreciate your ability to listen actively without trying to direct the conversation toward something that matters only to you.”