Effective listening is one of the most important qualities that support healthy relationships. Listening is linked to the ability to be understanding, supportive and open-minded, and it forms the basis of how others judge our effectiveness as communicators in both the personal and professional spheres. Far more demanding than literal hearing, effective listening is a higher-order skill that many of us aren’t explicitly taught to master.
Listening for the purpose of understanding helps to build closer relationships, resolve conflicts, and foster empathy, and good listeners are perceived by others as more likable and trustworthy. Listening can be transformative: we often assume we know what another person is thinking, but usually, there is much more to the story that we are missing. In situations when we know another person is hurting, upset, or has something important they want to share, our capacity to listen can either facilitate productive communication or drive disconnection.
Since listening is a skill, it’s something we can all improve with practice. Psychologists are experts when it comes to listening because it’s vital to their success as talk therapy practitioners.
These tips from a psychologist can help you to hone your listening skills:
Be present and limit distractions
Good listeners give the other person their undivided attention, which allows them to fully engage and maximize their understanding. Find a quiet place for your conversation, avoid multi-tasking, and silence your phone.
Suspend your agenda
If you approach the conversation with the intent to direct it in a particular way or dig for specific information, you won’t be a flexible listener. It can be helpful to articulate this intention to the other person, especially in conflict situations: “I’m here to listen. It’s important to me to really understand what you’re saying.”
Talk less, hear more
If you’re talking more than the other person, chances are that you’re not getting enough input from them to really understand the issue. If your goal is to listen, a good rule of thumb is to ensure that the other person is talking at least twice as much as you are.
Lean into the pauses
Difficult thoughts, emotions, and subjects can take time to articulate. Let the other person finish all of their sentences, and avoid interrupting. Allow for pauses, and offer conversational space when needed: “Take your time. I’m listening.”
Articulate your understanding
Reflecting back what you’re hearing is a good way to focus the conversation on gaining understanding: “So you’re saying…”
Ask open-ended questions
Be curious about what you’re hearing, and when appropriate, ask questions that encourage the other person to express their thoughts further: “How do you feel about that?” or “Tell me more about…”
Avoid the urge to problem solve
When you want to help, it can be compelling to offer unsolicited advice, but this can feel demeaning to the other person, who may perceive that your interest is only in solving their problems for them. Good listeners seek to understand and to allow others the space to work through the issue in their own way. If you do feel it’s appropriate to offer a solution, ask permission first: “Would it be helpful if I offered some advice?”
By: Zoë Laksman, Psy.D, C.Psych and Laura Clarridge, Ph.D.
Zoë Laksman has practiced as a Registered Clinical Psychologist at The Clinic on Dupont since 2007. Laura Clarridge is a certified executive coach who helps her clients find fulfilling educational and career pathways. Their backgrounds and training have shaped their interest in promoting improved psychological health, interpersonal functioning and wellness. They work together as a clinical team and as the developers of The Clinic on Dupont’s online presence.