How to become a better listener

friends having a conversation

‘What would you do in my shoes?’

Wait, what? Your bestie is fiddling with her paper straw and looking up at you expectantly. She wants answers, but there’s one major problem: You haven’t heard a single word she’s said for the past five minutes.

Sure, her lips have been moving and your head was nodding at the appropriate times, but nothing’s been going in. Your mind has been everywhere but in the room — from thinking about your next drink order to fretting over that email you haven’t replied to.

If the above scenario sounds familiar, it might be time to step up. Becoming a better listener isn’t only polite, it may have physiological benefits for your friends and family.

Lending your ear could help people to develop better brain functions, according to research from the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. The study found that receiving this social support helped people build ‘cognitive resilience’, which may lower the risk of brain-related conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Great stuff, but how can you make sure that you’re doing it right?

Listening well is a real skill, and, like all skills, it takes practice. If you’re guilty of failing to give people the attention they deserve in conversations, the good news is there’s plenty of ways to turn it around.

Here are some expert-backed tips to make you a pro.

Make eye contact

So someone is opening up to you. Now is not the time to let your attention wander. Perhaps the hot barman making your martini catches your eye or, worse, that bright notification on your smartphone calls your name. Ding.

Stop. Get your head back in the game. While staring unblinkingly into the depths of your friend’s soul may be a tad much, making some eye contact shows you’re present.

‘By looking the person in the eye you send a message to them: I’m paying attention, I care and I’m listening,’ Jonathan Alpert, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days, tells

‘Don’t stare at the person dead in the eyes as this can be seen as too intense or even feel intimidating, but rather, look slightly off centre to the left or right eye.’

Ask open-ended questions

Of course, most conversations don’t play out like TEDTalks. There will be natural lulls. In the moments you can hear a pin drop, encourage your friend to continue by asking some open-ended questions.

‘This will show them that you’re actually interested in what the person has to say and could possibly help the speaker to open up and share more information,’ says Jonathan. ‘Avoid questions that have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response as that would dead-end the conversation.’

Keeping the conversation flowing is an art form. Rather than just going with automatic responses, take a second to think about how you can keep things moving forward.

‘For example, if someone is telling you about an event they went to, instead of asking ‘Did you like it?’ Say ‘Tell me about it,’’ says Jonathan.

Put yourself in their shoes

Spoiler: People don’t only want to be heard, they want to be understood, too.

While you may not have lived experience of whatever your friend is going through, you don’t want to dismiss it completely. Instead, show them that you recognise what they are feeling.

‘Identify what their emotions are and connect with them,’ says Jonathan. ‘For instance, if a friend is telling you about a recent health scare and they’re feeling anxious, you might say: “I understand how difficult it might make you feel to not know exactly what is going on yet”.’

You don’t have to interject with a monologue every time there’s a break in the conversation. Sometimes, all someone wants is a little encouragement to keep talking.

‘Providing words such as ‘yes’ or ‘I understand’ while they are speaking will help them to feel listened to,’ he adds. ‘Non-verbal ways to build rapport and show you care would be to sit with an open stance as opposed to folded arms and to nod reassuringly.’

But don’t make it about you

There’s a fine line between empathy and steamrolling. The last thing you want to do is make the conversation all about you when someone else truly needs the limelight.

‘By saying things like “that’s exactly what I went through” you run the risk of alienating the person,’ says Jonathan. ‘Usually people—on an emotional level—don’t have the same experiences. So by saying that you do, you might end up showing a lack of sensitivity and could minimise their experience.’

‘Try to understand what they’re going through at an emotional level,’ he adds. ‘For example, if a friend tells you about losing a job, think about their situation and how it might impact them, not how you would feel if you were in their situation.’

Don’t jump to a solution

Your gut reaction may be to grab a cape and swoop in to save the day. But maybe you’re not the hero of this particular story. Maybe you’re more of a side character whose only role is to hear the protagonist out.

‘If you [rush to a solution], you might not be fully listening, because you’re strategising while they’re talking,’ says Jonathan. ‘Sometimes what people want and need is someone to listen and not necessarily a solution.’

Give your friend the space to speak about their problems without diving in with your own take. ‘If they ask for your advice, then that’s a different story and you can provide it.’

Avoid interrogating them

You want the story, the whole story and you want it now. However, there’s no need for the third degree. Your friend is already speaking up about their problem, and so you can put away the bright light and instead listen to what they have to say.

‘Although these might seem like obvious things to avoid, people need to be reminded,’ says Jonathan. ‘Many clients, when talking about their spouses, say they feel they are being cross-examined or they aren’t being listened to due to the frequent interruptions.

‘Stay focussed on the person in front of you. Let them talk. You can gently ask questions later.’

Do you have a story to share?

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