science of us

How to Make Everyone Think You’re an Amazing Listener

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Personally, I love to interject — which is not the same thing as interrupting. Interrupting means cutting someone off mid-speech or -sentence, which is rude. Interjecting can be an interruption, but I mean it in more of the fill-in-the-blank sense, like when your friend is trying to describe something to you, and you are generously offering suggestions which may or may not apply, like so:

Your friend: “I don’t know how I feel about it. I’m just … ”

You, interjecting: “Sad?”

Your friend: “Yeah.”

See what I mean? It’s so hard not to do this! Providing someone else with a word or a thought they agree to is incredibly satisfying, and there might be times when it’s warranted (when the other person can’t remember a particular term for something, for instance). But the rest of the time, this type of interjection is reflexive, unnecessary, and even limiting — by finishing someone’s thought for them, you prevent them from reaching their own conclusions.

In the above dumb example, your friend probably wasn’t going to say anything all that different from ‘sad.’ ‘Bad’ might also have worked. But even in the simplest conversations, most people appreciate being given the time to continue a thought. Which is why I think this listening technique from psychologist Kenneth E. Miller is actually really useful: Before you interject with the perfect word or rejoinder, take a breath — nothing huge or obvious, but a real, two- or three-second inhale and exhale.

I know it sounds simple, but admit it: You never do this. I certainly don’t. Most of us are antsy to fill silence, but by rushing to do so, we’re not letting each other sit with our thoughts, or reach any but the most surfacey conclusions. This is why so many therapists just look at you after you finish saying something: they know you’re probably not done, even if you thought you were.

And you know what? It works! A friend of a friend who currently lives in France often pauses a lot before she replies, mainly because her French is only moderately proficient. As a result, all her French friends tell her she’s an amazing listener, which is not something she hears much in English. So just do that. Take a breath, or pretend your native language isn’t your native language. Whatever it takes to give the person you’re talking to a moment to process, and go on.

How to Make Everyone Think You’re an Amazing Listener