How To Be A Good Listener


I’m a child of a therapist. What that means is that I was expertly listened-to most of my life. And then, wow, I met the rest of the world.

This is a skill that need not be rare. After all, one unquestionably unique human attribute—that no other animal seems to be capable of—is the desire to link our minds. We want to know what the other is thinking. We want to know what our whole species thinks (written language) and has learned (school). And yet, minds are not directly observable. We have to talk about them. We have a seemingly endless interest in stories, because there is information there we crave—how to be. Sharing stories of events and people, whether real or fictional, synchronizes our values, provides (perceived) control over this insane world via meaning and causal explanations, and creates—not reinforces, but creates—the basic, primal social bond humans have as we, as listeners, all tune into to one point of attention.

It’s a good thing for our survival. It’s what makes this whole civilization thing possible, these linked minds. So why are so many people still so bad at listening?

One reason is this myth: that the good listener just listens. This egregious misunderstanding actually leads to a lot of bad listening, and I’ll tell you why: because a good listener is actually someone who is good at talking.

I realized this as I was writing down some of the best advice for becoming a good listener. You know the obvious no-brainer ones already—don’t interrupt, don’t look at your phone, make (frequent, but not creepily constant) eye contact, turn your body towards the speaker…but the really good advice, the secrets that will make you much better at listening to a degree that your relationships are significantly more successful, peaceful, gratifying, intimate, and trusting, have to do with what you say.

Try these out, please. See if I’m right.

1. Let people feel their feels.

Let’s say the person is sad, maybe even wise enough to say “I’m sad,”—the first thing to not do is respond with “don’t be sad!” It’s true that the person shouldn’t be sad. But, the first step in getting over an emotion is to own it. For a while. Don’t tell the person she isn’t feeling it, or worse, make her feel ashamed of having the feeling (i.e. “that’s crazy!”). The feeling is there. Face it and it will lose its power.

Some simple and powerful phrases to use when someone is feeling feels: “I hear you.” “I bet it is hard.” “That makes sense.” Ones to strike from your vocabulary: “You have no reason to feel that way.” “Don’t be silly!” “I’m sad/mad/whatever too!” (see #5).

2. Check your own emotions.

Especially if the person is angry and attacking you. It’s time for you to be the non-angry one. Take a good look at this person’s face. It’s a face of someone who is hurt. Maybe saying things unrelated to the hurt.

Replace all of the shocking, mean, hateful, incorrect, ignorant, offensive, cruel things coming out of this person’s mouth with “I’m hurt! I’m hurt! I’m hurt! I’m hurt. I’m hurrrrt.” Summon your best pity, then disengage. END this moment with “I’ll be up for talking another time about this if you want.” Don’t say “…when you are less angry.” It will make the person angrier.

Really put your foot down that you won’t engage. Don’t allow lies you want to correct, or generalizations you want to protest, or insults you want to decry, or any angry words to manipulate you into engaging. This is not a real conversation. Real conversations and problem solving don’t happen in yells or insults.

Note: if this happens regularly with one particular person, it might be time end this relationship.

3. Talk to children as if they are people.

Don’t let “what do you want to be when you grow up?” be the first thing you say to a child. It reinforces the message that children, in the eyes of all the adults they meet, have no real value until they grow up.

Ask instead what the child is interested in now—favorite books, hobbies, subjects in school, etc. If it’s a female child, be aware of avoiding remarks on only her appearance or clothing. If you only heard compliments on your hair or dress or whatever from everyone you met, you’d start to think your looks are your most important feature, too. Maybe your only important feature.

If it’s a male child, try an unguided, open-ended invitation like “what’s on your mind today, buddy?” What a different world we’d live in if more boys felt safe sharing feelings, in their own way, right from the start.

Come to think of it, every single person you know could use a “what’s on your mind today, buddy?” once in a while.

4. Don’t give advice. Not really.

If a person is debating a decision, there’s no need to stress out about what advice to give him or her. Forget what you know. And don’t talk about your experience unless the person is specifically asking for it in hoping to learn from you (see #5). The person already knows the answer or the best solution—or at least, has a preference. All you have to do here is just repeat what he’s saying back to him.

Example: “It must be really hard to have to choose between those two awesome jobs the universe is throwing at you right now. Sounds like apple picking is really what you care deeply about, although pear picking pays more and comes with a cooler hat wardrobe.” Stop! Say no more. Just let the person listen to, and digest, what he himself is saying about his choices.

The answer is already in there, and it will just sound like advice coming from you. Win-win.

5. Don’t relate.

I mean that one-upping thing. Like, “oh, you broke your toe? Well one time I broke ALL of my toes and that REALLY hurt. So.”

There are two reasons a person redirects the conversation/attention back to himself: (1) the person is deeply self-centered and incapable of processing information about anyone unless it relates to him. It’s likely this person is cripplingly insecure, and therefore his worry about himself has turned into his only functioning pathway to the world. Or possibly this person is a sociopath. (2) The person really thinks this is helpful to compare stories. The person thinks this is empathy. It isn’t. The time for your story is not now. Just say, “Oh man, that must have really hurt!” Then, try this: look at the person in the eyes. If you can’t stop thinking about yourself, know that you have a problem. Your self-centeredness renders you incapable of intimacy. Get help.

Empathy is not “hey that happened to me too!” or “I also know what you are talking about—in fact I know a lot more than you do!” This is more like someone has just brought out his bowling pins to juggle but you grab them and juggle obliviously away from him. Not empathy.

Empathy is just the opposite: turning away from your ego, for just a minute (don’t worry, you can have it back soon!) in order to imagine, really imagine, what it’s like for someone else to be alive.

6. Ask questions.

What about when there’s nothing to listen to? You’re trying to support this person, you’re pointing all of your caring at her, but she’s just not saying much?

Ask about something that you think the person might like to answer. Anything, even, unrelated to the issue at hand. This is a great therapists’ trick. It gets a person going, and can lead to the bigger stuff.

Ask “What happened?” “What kind of place was that?” “When did you first…?” or other non yes-or-no questions. And, this sounds a little counterintuitive, but don’t ask a lot of “why” questions. Asking why can lead to defensiveness, and a sort of shallow string of quick justifications for behavior that aren’t actually insightful or productive. You can sit for days and discuss whys without any real benefit or helpful solutions. Also, it can often just be a dead-end question. “I dunno” is likely what you’ll get out of asking why 99% of the time.

Questions, good straightforward questions, are one of the greatest gifts you can give a person. Questions say, “I’m interested. You are valuable.” And they are my go-to solution whenever I have no idea what to say.

Now let’s go make some civilization together.