How to Listen (When Someone Needs to Be Heard)

December 11, 2015
Good Listener

I once attended a professional training seminar that was focused on developing empathy skills that could be “leveraged in the workspace.” One of the teaching materials used was an exercise called The Good Listener Game.

The exercise involved a group of three people: one was the listener, one was the observer, and the other was the speaker. The speaker would choose a personal story – about anything, really – which they would communicate to the listener. After the speaker was finished, the listener’s job was to repeat back to the speaker what they heard. The observer would (obviously) observe the interaction, and once the exchange was finished, would pose a question to the speaker:

“Do you feel heard?”

As the listener, I failed hopelessly. I could not get the speaker to feel heard. Part of this was because I wasn’t quite sure if I was supposed to simply repeat back exactly what I heard in a straightforward way, or if I was meant to “read between the lines” and offer up some sort of insight. Evidently, I was not a good listener.

In my confusion the facilitator intervened to “help” me understand what I was doing wrong. We tried the game again with her standing beside us, and again I failed. I tried to explain my confusion, but the facilitator’s direction left me feeling even more confused, and I continued to grow more and more self-conscious and embarrassed.

I did not feel heard.

I learned two things from this exercise:

  1. Learning to be a good listener in a way that causes the other person to feel heard is harder than it looks.
  2. Corporate training is, in a word, ugh.

While I certainly don’t think the corporate training reveals anything about me personally (other than the fact that it wasn’t designed for my personality type – but that’s a whole other blog) – I wanted to shed some light on the way that I try to be a good listener to others in times when they need to feel heard. All of these tools and methods are things that others have used with me, and which have made me feel heard when I most needed it.

10 Tips for How to Be a Good Listener

 1. Be a good listener: Don’t offer advice, unless it’s asked for.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but as a general rule of thumb I would advise [ 🙂 ] you not to offer advice. 9 times out of 10 when someone is baring his soul to you, it’s not because he’s looking for advice; he’s just getting something off his chest.

Alternatively, try offering a personal anecdote, which sounds less preachy and more like,  “This is what I’ve done in the past, and it worked for me because…”. The difference here is that you are showing someone the way, rather then telling him what to do.

2. Be a good listener: Avoid “There, there” statements.

There’s a whole list of statements that we resort to when we’re trying to be supportive, but which have the opposite effect. I call them “There, there” statements.

Here’s a few famous ones:

  • “Just snap out of it.”

What it sounds like: “Your problem can be switched off, like a light switch.”

  • “Cheer up.”

What it sounds like: “Well just don’t be that way. Problem solved.”

  • “Everyone gets down in the dumps sometimes.”

What it sounds like: “Whatever you’re feeling isn’t that original.”

If you feel a “There, there” statement bubbling up your throat, bite your tongue and say nothing instead – there is a place for silence in listening.

3. Be a good listener: Be mindful about asking, “What can I do?”

Keep in mind that sometimes people who are upset, anxious, or depressed don’t really know what you or anyone could do to make it better, and they might not even understand what’s wrong themselves – and that’s half the problem. “What can I do?” can sound almost the same as “I got nothin’.”

Instead ask, “What do you need me to do?” When you position it this way, you are communicating that you empathize with the other person, even if her feelings are irrational, which she may very well be embarrassed about:

“If you need me to check the closets for monsters to help you calm down, then I’m totally willing to do that – no judgments, no questions asked.” 

4. Be a good listener: You don’t necessarily need to offer a solution.

Being a good listener doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to come up with a solution. Oftentimes, when the desire to provide a solution wells up inside you, it’s more an indication that you are having feelings of discomfort or helplessness with the other person’s dilemma.

Be mindful that simply listening is providing a whole world of difference for the person in front of you.

5. Be a good listener: You don’t need to understand, exactly.

All you need to know is that the person in front of you is suffering, and they are reaching out to you. It doesn’t mean you need to fully understand what she is experiencing, because the fact is you probably can’t, exactly. Resist the temptation to say, “I know how you feel,” and stick to what you can actually understand, which is, “I understand that you’re having difficulty.”

6. Be a good listener: Respond with questions.

If it seems like the right moment to respond, instead of offering closed-ended statements, try asking open-ended questions. The main goal of the conversation isn’t necessarily to arrive at a solution – it’s really just about talking (a solution unto itself). Open-ended questions are invitations to continue talking.

7. Be a good listener: Listen with your body.

There is a lot you can communicate with your body – especially when you’re listening. A few things to try:

  • Avoid crossing your arms – that means you’re closed off
  • Maintain eye contact – that means you’re paying close attention
  • Have good posture – you’ll look more open and confident, something the other person needs at that moment
  • Try not to fidget or shake your leg – (if you can)
  • You don’t need to nod and agree with everything – you’re just listening

8. Be a good listener: Understand you can’t fix the problem.

No matter how good a listener you are – you could be the best listener in the world – the responsibility to act resides in the other person. Yes, you can and should continue to be supportive and check in with the other person – but ultimately it’s up to her to make change toward resolving the situation. When we try to do too much and lead the other person by the hand, while we might think we’re just trying to help, we might be making it worse.

When someone is experiencing depression, in particular, sometimes all you can do (and the best thing you can do) is be there and be present. As the listener, having anxiety or discomfort about not being able to fix the problem isn’t doing the other person any good.

9. Be a good listener: Stay cool.

No matter the subject matter, no matter how much it shocks you, how uncomfortable you might feel, or worried you are for the other person, keep your cool. Fake it if you have to. As humans it’s very difficult not to be affected by people around us, that’s a fact. But it’s also true that when someone is opening up, she is – at that moment – hypersensitive to the reactions of others.

Especially yours.

10. Be a good listener: Set it aside – but continue to check in.

One of the biggest fears we have about opening up to others is that they will see us differently after. As the listener, while it’s important to be attentive to the person opening up to you, after the conversation has ended it’s equally important to set it to the side and continue on as you normally would.

This doesn’t mean you’re pretending that the conversation didn’t happen. At a later date, when the time is right, you can and should check in. Acting as you normally would between conversations communicates to the other person that you can be trusted, that you don’t see her as different, and that you’re not going anywhere.

One of the most fascinating tell-tale signs of a moment when two people are connected and in-tune with each other is when they subconsciously mirror each other’s stance, movements, or body language. Have you ever noticed this? It’s really quite something. The next time you’re having an intense conversation with someone, take a look to see if he or she is mirroring you – because it’s possible you just made a friend for life.

And that’s something you’ll never learn in corporate training.

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  • Reply Patty December 11, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    I adore you. Such awesome sharing!!!! Thank you for always listening to me. I feel heard. And I feel cared for. xxxxp

    • Reply mdineen December 11, 2015 at 2:23 pm

      Thanks, Patty! You’re the best. 😉

  • Reply Anonymous December 11, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Must say I try to be a good listener but after reading I hope I’ll get better at it. I’m sure we all have experienced someone listening but not hearing us. Everyone could learn something here. So many good points. Thanks for sharing Mike.

    • Reply mdineen December 11, 2015 at 3:00 pm

      Thanks for the feedback 🙂

  • Reply Roger Bull December 11, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    Way to go, Mike. Active and compassionate listening is such a vital thing. I think your list will help people along a path to better hearing. Hugs, Roger

    • Reply mdineen December 11, 2015 at 3:11 pm

      Thanks a million, Roger!

  • Reply Mark December 11, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    “Corporate training is, in a word, ugh.” Couldn’t agree more! Great post, Mike.

    • Reply mdineen December 11, 2015 at 4:14 pm

      Isn’t it though?! Thanks a lot, Mark!

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