The art of listening is an extremely valuable skill to have. In my opinion, it is one of the most important universal skills to have for your career and for your personal relationships. I believe this ability to listen effectively and empathetically has been grossly underrated. It is a silent, humble skill. It does not insist upon itself. However, I believe that mastering the art of listening is a vital attribute that will make you stand out in your career and will help deepen your relationships with those around you. To help you become better at listening, I will outline some important tips for you in this blog post.
Listening might seem like a passive activity, but that is far from the truth. Listening is an active skill that you can hone through practice. When someone is telling you something, it should not go in one ear and out of the other. To be an active listener you have to be actively engaged. Let the other person feel that you are listening, that you are there with them, and that you are interested. One of the worst things you can experience while you are speaking is the feeling that the other person is distracted, uninterested, or just not listening to you. So ask questions, show that you are listening through your body language, and react to what the other person is saying.
So, someone is telling you a story. Whether you are interested or not, you want that person to feel that you are. A great way to do this is by asking questions. This shows that you want to know more. However, asking questions can be more difficult than it seems. What if you don’t know what to ask? Or what if you are not at all interested in what the speaker is saying, and you don’t want to know more? Something that has helped me is to visualize what the other person is saying. Pretend that you are there seeing this story unfold. You will notice that some information is missing. Let’s say that the speaker is telling you that she went to a theme park with her children. She says that they had so much fun. You are imagining that you are in that theme park with her. You know that they had fun, but what did they do? What was this experience like for that person? These are great questions. They are open-ended, giving the person the opportunity to tell you more about her experience, and they focus on experience instead of technical facts.
The question “what was that experience like for you?” might seem a bit strange. You could replace this question with a few yes-or-no questions, like: “Did you have fun to?” and “Were the lines long?” Yes-or-no questions are not forbidden in active listening. Just make sure to include some open-ended questions to keep the conversation going.
You will notice in the visualization exercise that other information is missing too. You don’t know what the park looked like. You don’t know what kinds of rides there were, or how long they stayed, and what the weather was like. These, I will say, are the technical facts. Be careful with these. Let’s say that the person is enthusiastically telling you that the kids had so much fun. They really needed that after a difficult time, and it was great to see them be happy again. If you ask her what the park looked like you will take her out of her story. She will lose her train of thought and her enthusiastic tone while she tries to remember the layout of the park. However, the question of what the weather was like does seem relevant. Why so?
Humans are meaning-making beings. We derive meaning and value from our experiences and our relationships with others. What the weather was like influences the experience that the person had. The layout of the park does not, or only in a limited way. So, focus on experience and the other people in the story when you ask questions.
Another way to show that you are listening and that you are engaged is by reacting to what the speaker is saying. You can do this by commenting on what he/she is saying, adjusting your body language, and by mirroring their emotions.
Let’s go back to our example. We might ask the question “what was that experience like for you?” As we have seen before, this is a good question but it sounds a bit strange. You could also substitute this question with a remark: “That must have been so much fun!” or “I can imagine that it must have felt great for you to see your children enjoying themselves.” These comments show that you are engaged and that you are actively putting yourself in said person’s shoes.
Body language works on the subconscious of the speaker. Try to subtly mirror the body language of the speaker. This shows that you are engaged. Make sure you are open. Your arms and legs should not be crossed, your shoulders should be back, and your back should be straight (without seeming forced). Keep your feet pointed at the speaker. When a person does not want to continue the conversation, their feet will point towards the door or exit. When a person is uninterested, they will cross their arms and legs. We subconsciously pick up on these signs. So avoid these conversation-enders.
Mirror the emotion of the storyteller. This is very important. Have you ever told a story to someone and they just looked at you stoically? It’s not a great feeling. Our speaker is enthusiastic about her day at the theme park. So smile when she is telling her story. She might tell you why this was so important to her. The kids just lost their grandpa, her husband has had a hard time dealing with the loss, and she has been so busy with work that she has not been able to fully emotionally support her family. At this point in the story, you can nod and maybe even put your arm around her shoulders. At this point, you should obviously not be smiling. She goes on to tell you how great it was to see her children having fun. This also made her husband smile for the first time since his father died. She is smiling when she tells you this and you see a twinkling in her eyes as she thinks back to that great day. So, mirror this emotion. Mirroring emotions allows you to subtly show the emotions that the speaker is showing more overtly.
Speaking is silver but silence is gold
Silence is a vital part of listening. As we have seen, speaking is a part of listening when you ask questions or make comments. But you are still the one listening, not the one speaking. I feel like many people feel the need to avoid periods of silence in conversation. They are seen as awkward. But silence is so much more valuable than is often thought. The speaker has finished their story, or goes silent in the middle of her story. Resist the urge to fill that silence. Just let it be. In that pause, you can process what you have just heard. Maybe some questions pop up, now that you have some time to think. Maybe the speaker needs some time to think too.
A tip that is taught in empathetic listening is utilizing silence. After the speaker is done speaking, wait for five seconds before you say anything. This might feel awkward at first, but you will notice that the speaker will sometimes go on speaking. They were not done yet, but needed to gather their thoughts. If the speaker has not spoken for five seconds, you can end the conversation, introduce a new topic, or ask a question.
By letting silences be instead of filling them with noise, you are also showing that you are not in a hurry. This can take as long as it needs to. You are not using these silences to make a quick get-away or to change the topic. You are not interrupting the speaker, but letting them finish completely. You are showing that you are patiently waiting on the other person. I promise you, the speaker will notice this and be grateful.
If active listening is an under-valued skill, empathetic listening is even more so. We are busy. We have stuff to do and places to be, especially in the workplace. Besides, you are in a great mood. You don’t want someone’s sad story to bring you down. And isn’t everyone dealing with their own hardships?
There isn’t a time and place for empathetic listening. We are asked to use this skill all the time. You never know when someone may need you. Empathetic listening is extremely beneficial, not only to the speaker, but to you as well. If you are a great listener, your relationships with those around you will deepen, and those people will value you for this rare quality. So let’s look at some tips.
You have been working fifty hours a week, or you have been writing essays all week, or you just haven’t had much sleep. Your friend comes to you, already sobbing. Her mum just passed away. Of course you feel bad for her, but you just don’t have the energy to deal with this right now. What do you do?
The best thing you can do is avoid this scenario. You have probably heard the saying that you can’t take care of others before you take care of yourself. Make sure that you are ready and energized when your friend comes to you. You can do this by sleeping and eating right, meditating, using breathing exercises, and trying to preserve some mental energy throughout your day. Make sure you’re taken care of before you are asked to take care of others.
Of course, this is the ideal. But that doesn’t help you in this scenario. You are exhausted. You just want to go to bed and now you have to have a long conversation and show empathy on top of that. You might not be able to escape this. In that case, do what you can to get your energy up. Maybe do some breathing exercises, or grab a snack. However, it might be best to just be honest. Let your friend speak and get this of her heart. Then, tell her that you feel for her but that you feel like you cannot give her the attention she needs right now. Maybe she wants to talk about it tomorrow over coffee? Tell her you think that this conversation is very important and you want to do it right. This way, your friend got to say what she needed to say in the moment, she knows that you care about her and that you are not taking this lightly, and you have a time and place that works for both of you to properly talk this through.
Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation when the other person just picks up their phone? Have you tried talking to a colleague while she is typing an email simultaneously? You feel like you might as well just stop in the middle of your sentence and walk away. You’ll probably be doing the other person a favour.
You want to avoid the speaker feeling like this. If you don’t have the time to listen to them, you can tell them in the same way you did when you did not have the energy. Tell them that this conversation is important and you do not want to rush it. Maybe you can meet them after work?
If you can make the time needed, then make it count. You are both taking time out of your day for this conversation. You at least want to leave the speaker satisfied or relieved after talking to you. Not frustrated and lonely. So close your laptop, set your phone on silent and clear your mind. With notifications blowing up your phone and your extensive to-do list in your head, it is hard to focus your attention on one thing at a time. Find out what helps you and do it. Even if you are great at multitasking (which you are not, trust me) the other person will still feel like you are not listening. Empathetic (and active) listening is not just about hearing what the other person says, it is about being actively engaged and showing that you are listening.
It is not about you
Your friend tells you that her mother just died of cancer. There are two possibilities here: you have either had a similar experience, or you have not. It does not matter because the speaker is not going to know about it. Or is she?
So let’s go with option one: your mother died of cancer last year. So you know exactly what she is going through. We have all been in this situation as both listener and speaker. What is the most annoying thing the listener can do in this situation? Make it about her. She starts telling the speaker about her experience with losing her mother. The speaker needed to talk about her experience, but instead she has become the listener. Not only is this annoying, but it’s unfair. When the speaker came to you to talk about the recent loss of her mother, she did not sign up to hear a story about your mother.
But, as I’ve said, we have been the listener in this situation too. Someone tells you that they are not feeling well. They have lost the motivation and the energy to even get out of bed. You happen to have dealt with depression or burn-out. You might try to listen, but you keep getting distracted by your own associations with the experiences that the speaker is describing. You just have to tell them that you have dealt with this as well. I know this is a difficult situation, but try to listen to the other person. Find out what it is like to experience these feelings from their point of view. At the end of the conversation, the speaker should not know that you have had a similar experience.
You may have heard that sharing a similar experience might make the other person feel less alone. You might even have tips. Sure, it might help some people in certain situations. It has helped me before. Usually it does not though. I would say, if in doubt, don’t say it. Usually people are also not looking for tips in these scenarios, but you’ll know when they are. Because when someone wants tips or advice, they will ask you. If they don’t ask you for advice, don’t give it.
Lastly, let’s take a quick look at option two. You have never lost a loved one at all. You don’t know anyone who has had cancer. You have no idea what the other person is going through. In this case, try to understand. If the other person is up for it, ask questions. Try to put yourself in their shoes. This is an advantaged position, because you will not fall into the trap of thinking you know what they are going through because you went through it yourself. Everyone’s experiences and ways of dealing with those experiences are different. What is important here is to try to understand, not act like you understand. Instead of saying “that must be so hard,” say “I can imagine that you are having a hard time.” You are showing the speaker that you are not pretending to understand, but that you are empathizing: “I can imagine…” You are imagining what it must be like. But you could be wrong. So follow a statement like that up with a question.
I have shown you some ways in which you can react (or should not react) when listening empathetically. In truth, it doesn’t really matter what you say. Tips and advice will probably not help. Sharing your own experiences will probably not help. Asking the right questions will probably not help. What this all comes down to is this: when someone is going through a difficult time, your reaction will not make much of a difference. So just listen to them. Be there, be present, and be silent. And if you don’t know what to say, that’s perfectly okay. Saying: “That is really heavy. I don’t know what to say right now” might be the best thing you can say.
There are far more tips and techniques with regards to listening out there. I hope that I have given you some tools to work with and that I have motivated you to learn more about this special skill.
Written by Merel Melchers
Merel is an undergraduate studying English with Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen. She enjoys reading, writing and playing with her dog. She mainly writes about personal development, student life, and mental health to motivated and guide passionate young women.