You may have been there before: your conversational partner has opened up to you with something personal, and you don’t know how to respond.
Someone sharing their struggles with you is often a sign of vulnerability, authenticity, and trust. You want to say the right things, to do the right things, but you might worry you’ll somehow make it worse or shut the conversation down.
Listening —really listening— is not always intuitive. And, unfortunately, not feeling heard can lead people to feel misunderstood, lonely, and frustrated. They’re also more likely to emotionally detach themselves from the people who aren’t listening to them.
To help solve this problem, below, we walk through tried and true techniques for how to be a better listener.
1. Active listening
“Active listening” was described by psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard E. Farson in the 1950s, and the influence behind this term runs strong today. Research has demonstrated that people who consistently provide emotional support for their partner have higher relationship satisfaction levels, indicating that listening to your loved one can increase feelings of bonding and closeness for the both of you. Similarly, friendships characterized by high communication skills derive an increased relationship quality. Active listening serves to strengthen our social ties, forge deeper connections, and make us feel less alone. So how do you do it?
To begin with, practice saying less when listening. It sounds obvious, but it’s harder than you’d think. We often want to talk, to relate experiences to ourselves, and to direct conversations. It takes effort to truly just listen, but your conversational partner will surely appreciate it. Plus, when you focus more on hearing what they’re saying and less on thinking about what you’re going to say, you can make sure 100% of your attention is on them.
Try this: Limit your responses to head nods and gentle affirmative statements, such as “I see,” or even just “mhm.”
Even if the other person stops talking, allow a comfortable silence. You’d be surprised how often they open up even further when given the chance.
Next, you’ll want to periodically validate what they’re saying. In active listening, the listener validates the partner’s feelings rather than the situation itself. Even if you disagree with the person’s thoughts or actions, you can still understand why they might feel or think that way.
Try this: “I can see why you’d feel that way,” or “That makes sense,” or “I can understand that.”
Validating your conversational partner’s thoughts and feelings will empower them to further express themselves and feel comfortable connecting with you. At the end of the day, we all just want someone who will understand us.
When you do talk, use the summarize method. Paraphrase what they told you so that they know they’re being heard and understood. Remember to ask for corrections in case you’re not fully understanding them.
Try this: “It sounds like you feel/think x. Is that right?”
This three-step technique of hearing, validating, and summarizing keeps the focus on the conversation partner, allowing them to express themselves in a supportive and understanding environment.
Accordingly, you’ll want to avoid spreading into areas that can come across as judgmental, directive, or invalidating. We have a few tricks for that, too.
4. Asking questions
When asking questions, focus on feelings, not facts. Avoid “why” questions; instead use “how” or “what” questions.
Try this: “How do you feel about x?” or “What does y mean to you?” or “How is z affecting you?”
Avoid this: “Why do you feel x?” and “Why don’t you just do y?”
Asking people “why” puts pressure on them to justify their own feelings and experiences. “Why” questions make your conversational partner defensive rather than expressive. Asking more exploratory questions (how/what) rather than demanding questions (why) will provide a comfortable environment for them to express themselves how they want to, at their own pace.
Lastly, remember that they are the expert on their own feelings. They are usually not opening up to you to be told what to do or how to feel; they are opening up to you to be heard and understood. As such, avoid giving advice, making judgments, or trying to change the way they feel.
“You should just x” becomes “What do you think you’d want to do next?” or “What are your options moving forward?”
“You shouldn’t do that/I wouldn’t have done that” becomes “I can see why you’d do that.”
“You should feel x because y” becomes “It makes sense to feel x in this situation.”
Avoiding judgment, advice, and reinterpretation is difficult. You’ll likely see things in a different light than your conversational partner, and it’s natural to want to express that perspective. But remember that you’re hearing only a part of the puzzle; they’re living it. You’re here to listen, not tell. If you keep that in mind, you’ll be a great listener in no time.
To practice active listening, try starting a conversation with a friend or family member, or enter a Supportiv chat room any time of day or night.
Remember that it takes time and effort to be a great listener, and give yourself the patience and understanding that you’re working to provide to others.
At the end of the day, we all just want to feel heard. Sometimes, the simple act of opening up to someone makes us feel better — but only if they’re a kind and supportive listener. If we all worked to be a little bit better at listening, we could forge deeper connections with each other, feel more comfortable with other people’s (and our own) emotions, and feel less alone.