How to Listen
Updated: Jun 14
I had a few friends over the other night for a socially-distanced deck social. We were spread apart on patio chairs, sipping on the beverages we brought for ourselves, huddled in our coats and blankets, freezing in the California evening wind. It was still fun. But it got me thinking about the increased challenges with communicating that we all are confronting. Now with faces covered and social distance as standard operating procedure, just having a relatively normal conversation is more difficult. And we might all be a little out of practice, too, having spent some time apart. So, I’m thinking that now is a great opportunity to brush up on our communication skills. Let’s start with a few of my favorite tips for how to listen, and then I’ll do a follow-up post about how to talk. Taken together, we should be more than ready to mask up, go out, and socialize like a pro once again.
Listening is an often overlooked skill, but being a good listener will never go unnoticed, or unappreciated. There is a whole lot of emotional noise in our environments and around each of us. Listening well helps silence that noise, allowing for both parties to experience a valuable connection. Did you know that one of the biggest drivers of people seeking therapy or counseling is just having someone to listen to them? We live in households and have colleagues and family and friends, yet many people still report feeling like they don’t have anyone in their lives who actually listens to them. I find that tragic. And fixable, one conversation at a time.
Try to limit distractions. While we can’t control the airplane noise above our heads, or the kids frolicking in the background, we can still make the effort to attend to the conversation with all of our attention. And we can actively ignore our phones or smart watches or devices, which unless prefaced with a “I am waiting for an important call”, are rarely an acceptable accessory when attempting to have an uninterrupted, valuable conversation. I think we justify distractions by believing that a conversation is not that important, or it doesn’t matter. How do we know? What makes a conversation unimportant? I might argue that any conversation, especially among friends, is important. And worthy of your undivided attention for that precious time together. On the phone is no different. Calls with the bank - I’ll fold laundry. Calls with my sister, I’ll try to sit down and attend. She is important. So is the conversation, whatever it holds.
Let them do the talking. Give them the time and the space to just say what they want to say. Whether it be a new recipe they discovered or an argument they want to have with you about last night, let them speak. They will stop eventually, and when they do you will have your turn. But you can’t jump in and interrupt them and cut them off and expect them to graciously allow you to have your say if you didn’t give them theirs. Listening is actively choosing to stand aside. It is actively choosing to let someone have their turn.
Seek to understand. Try to really see the world through their eyes. You can ask for clarification. You can ask for examples. The closer you can get to understanding what is important to them, the stronger the connection will be. And the key here is understanding what is most important to THEM, not you. There are few things I could care less about than baseball cards. But when my husband starts speaking about them I stay engaged and marvel at the world that he cares so much about. At the end of the conversation do I love baseball cards? Nope. But do I understand why HE does? Yep. Mission accomplished.
Don’t plan ahead. Don’t sit there quietly thinking about what you are going to say while they are talking. That’s not really listening. That’s just waiting. How do you know what you are going to say until they finish talking? It just distracts from what you could be listening to. So just wait. I promise the other person will give you time to thoughtfully gather your next words knowing that you listened to what they had to say. They say that at parties we often miss hearing the names of the guests we just met because we were already so worried about what we were going to say if they asked us a question. Listen. Then think. Then speak. In that order preferably.
Encourage. With your tone of voice by matching their energy or needs. Your body language by shifting your body towards them and staying relaxed physically. With your eyes by looking at them. Encourage the speaker to go on. Especially with more heated or personal conversations, simply asking “is there anything else you wanted to tell me” can go a long way, signaling to even a reluctant speaker that you are still with them and willing to listen to more. Sometimes silence is all the encouragement they need to continue.
Children count, too. Never assume that the children in your life are not worthy of the very same rules for listening and good conversation. If anything, they are worthy of it more, for they are watching you in action and learning from how they are being treated by you. It can take more effort than I believe I have to just listen to my child tell me about another train. Or make an excuse about why something is lost. Or scream about the latest inhumane chore that has been thrust upon them. But listening is my job. Perpetually. And when I treat them with that courtesy, they are bound to come back one day and listen to me. I always learn something new when I stop and listen to my kids. You have no idea how much I know about 4-3-4 steam engines of the Pennsylvania Railroad thanks to some killer listening skills on my part!
Do unto others. I try so hard to remember that while I might currently be in a conversation that is not terribly interesting to me, or not occurring in a timely fashion, I, too have been the recipient of patient ears. I, too, have been free to talk and talk and talk and have someone listen to my thoughts. And it matters. When I listen I consider it a way of paying it forward. I listen to you, you listen to someone else, someone listens to me.
I’m dating myself again by bringing up an old movie, White Men Can’t Jump. The main characters are driving in the car and Woody Harrelson’s character pops in a cassette tape (old movie, right?) He is immediately berated by Wesley Snipes, who simply can’t believe that Woody Harrelson had the nerve to put in a Jimi Hendrix tape. He tells Woody - “You can listen to Jimi, but you can’t HEAR Jimi!” You see, there is a difference between having the physical capacity to listen (with your ears) and actually having the emotional capacity to understand what you are listening to, or to hear it. Wesley Snipes was pretty clear that a mediocre white guy like Woody Harrelson just wouldn’t be able to grasp the gravity and substance of Jimi Hendrix music so he shouldn’t even bother trying. I am not in a position to agree or disagree with Wesley, but the point is taken - hearing and listening are indeed two very different things.
When we are employing our best listening skills - which is more than just using our ears -l we are well on our way to elevating the conversation to a point where the person speaking to us is actually being heard. That’s so important, don’t you think?