How to Be a Good Listener: 12 Ways to Listen Closely…and Kindly
By Lori Hope
(Reprinted from Beliefnet.com)
A magnificent array of diverse and unique individuals populate this beautiful planet, but as different as we are, we share at least one fundamental need: to feel heard and understood. Most of us would like to think we can easily satisfy that need with our friends and loved ones, but we often fall short. I know I do. I learned that when I had cancer, and instead of finding open ears, I often encountered open mouths eager to spout advice or share stories. I saw myself in those people, and consequently set out to do unto others as I wished they had done unto me. I wrote a book fundamentally about listening, and I discovered along the way a huge bonus. I was not only a better friend, but I was able to attract new ones. So listen up – learn the art of listening – and feel the love!
First, Practice Actively
Listening well is an art – a skill honed by practice, study, and observation. And though it seems passive – after all, people talk TO us – it is indeed an activity and can require great effort. Seeing genuine listening to be active listening will prepare you for the immensely satisfying work it takes to really hear someone.
Open Your Eyes
Good listening isn’t just about ears, it’s about eyes. Maintain eye contact, and don’t give into the temptation to glance around. I’ll never forget meeting John Kennedy Jr. at a reception in New York, and noticing that while I spoke, his eyes never left mine, even though we were surrounded by luminaries. I felt like the most important person on Earth. Also, read the speaker’s body language; if their eyes are not meeting yours, they may feel uncomfortable or could be hiding something.
Move your Body
When you’re truly engaged, your body reacts by leaning forward, and your pupils dilate. Though you can’t control your pupils, you can show you’re listening by moving your body instead of your mouth. Nod; move forward in your chair; and if you’re close enough, physically and emotionally, gently touch the speaker’s arm.
Keep Your Mouth Closed
“Keep your ears and eyes open and your mouth shut!” commanded a boot camp officer in a documentary I made years ago. When I’m about to listen to a friend who needs to talk, I think of that or “You have two ears and one mouth; use them in that proportion,” and remind myself to count to at least two before speaking. (By the way, keeping your lips together still allows you to give that most vital vocal sign, a soft “mmm-hmmm” that shows you are listening.)
It’s natural to relate what someone else says to your own experience and respond without thinking (I sometimes call that “blurting”), but considerate listeners keep their focus on the speaker. Even though you may have something important to say, try not to worry about how wise, clever, or empathetic you’d like to appear. Just concentrate on the speaker, which belies your wisdom and compassion more than anything.
As tempting as it is to interject your thoughts, hold back. It’s insulting to cut someone off when she’s voicing an opinion, but it’s even more hurtful when she’s sharing a feeling, especially a difficult one. When you interrupt, it can feel like a denial or discounting of your friend’s emotions.
Most of us have become adept at cleaning off our desks or even checking Facebook while talking on the phone, but if you really want to hear what someone’s saying, it’s a good idea to let go of everything else while you’re involved with your conversation. Even if you’re only cleaning the kitchen counter, it’s easy to get lost in the sponge or the stubborn stain instead of the details of your friend’s story.
Limit Possible Distractions
“I know my own face has fallen when someone listening to me [a caregiver who has trouble even asking for time for myself], stops me in the middle of some gut wrenching moment to answer a call,” said my friend Dana Hopkins, a cancer survivor who took care of her husband when he had cancer. She advises turning off your cell phone when you really want to listen. Not only will it limit distractions, but will signal to the speaker that you’re serious about hearing what he has to say.
Be a Mirror, Not a Window
Listening is not about inviting people into your soul; it’s about entering theirs. To let them know you’re hearing them, reflect back to them what you think they’ve just said, with a “What I think I hear you saying is that…” or “It sounds like what you’re saying is…”
“Mother, May I …..?”
Remember what your mamma taught you? “Say ‘please,’” or in other words, ask permission, especially before offering advice. Sometimes a loved one just needs to vent or talk, and feel heard. They may not want to hear what they should or shouldn’t say, do, or feel, and if you ask, “Would you like my take on this?” you let them know they’re not only being heard but also respected.
When I produced documentaries about homeless people, teen parents, and others facing tremendously difficult life challenges, they easily opened up to me about their deepest fears and desires, and I think it’s partly because I was able to suspend any judgment about them, and just listen with an open heart and mind. Most of us can tell when we’re being judged, and clamp up accordingly.
Don’t Interrogate – Do Ask Gentle Questions
When you question someone too intensely, it can feel voyeuristic – like you’re more interested in learning something than actually hearing someone. So when you do get an opportunity to ask questions, ask open-ended ones that give the speaker a choice, such as “Do you want to tell me more about that?” Encourage your friend to elaborate or discover things themselves by asking, “What did that feel like?” Or “What options are you considering?”
In addition to reserving judgment, try to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. What are they feeling? How would you feel? When you put yourself in that head-and-heart space, you can’t help but listen well; that is when you feel compassion — a word which means “to feel with” – and truly understand.
Lori Hope is the author of Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know. Visit her online at LoriHope.com.