Effective Listening and Why it’s Important
Being a good listener is about more than just hearing the words that someone is saying. Effective listening is about understanding the meaning behind what someone is telling you. It’s noticing body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice and using that information to inform your understanding of their experience. It’s about showing the other person that you care about what they are saying and want to be there for them. A good listener makes you feel safe, wanted and understood.
If you have ever opened up to a good listener, you know how good it feels to have someone understand you. The opposite is also true. We’ve all tried to confide in someone or simply have a discussion with someone and came out the other side feeling disrespected, misunderstood, or unimportant. What separates a good listener from a not-so-good listener?
Good Listeners Give Undivided Attention
When someone comes to you with something important to say, the acts of setting aside your cell phone or laptop, turning down the volume or pausing the TV, or just turning your body to face them do two powerful things. First, willingly turning your attention from what you were doing to the person who wants to talk allows you to focus all your attention on the conversation. This increases your capacity to understand the other person. Second, these acts all communicate to the other person that you care enough about what they have to say that you are giving it your full attention, making them feel safe and wanted.
Good Listeners Ask for Clarification
Even if you are giving your undivided attention to another person, it is still possible (and likely) that you might misunderstand what they are trying to say. They might also have difficulty putting what they are feeling/thinking into words. In this case, the best thing to do is to get clarification. That might sound like, “I don’t think I quite understand what you are trying to say. Could you try explaining again in different words?”, “What I think you are telling me is ______, do I have that right?” or “Are you wanting my help to figure out a solution, or do you want to vent and have me listen?”. Asking for clarification allows you to understand better what the other person is going through as well as the desired outcome of the conversation. It also communicates to the other person that you want to understand them and meet their needs.
Good Listeners Validate
Validating someone is simply communicating to them that what they are feeling is valid and that they have a right to feel it. It is important to note that you can validate someone without agreeing with them. Validation might sound like, “I can understand why you are feeling this way,” or “I probably would have done the same thing.” Validation can be done through touch as well and might be a strong embrace or a squeeze of the hand to let the other person know that you are there for them. Validation makes the other person feel accepted and normal – like they are not alone.
Good Listeners Postpone Their Agenda
Listening to understand feels very different than listening to rebuttal, refute, or convince. Effective listening requires that the listener put their agenda aside for the time being (not forever; most!) while they fully stay present with the other person’s experience. This might look like using a pen and paper to take notes about what your partner is saying to keep your attention focused on them. When you understand your partner’s experience – from their perspective – you are much more likely to be able to help them or find a suitable compromise. Not to mention that when you show a true understanding of your partner, they are much more likely to do the same for you.
Being a good listener is such a small thing that has incredible impacts on those around you and can improve your relationships tremendously. Being a good listener takes practice; most of us were not taught how to effectively listen when we were growing up. So, if you are unsure if you are a good listener, don’t beat yourself up – just try actively using these strategies the next time you have a conversation with someone!