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How to Listen Well to Others

Updated on September 19, 2010

A listening ear for others

I am always appreciative when something complimentary is said about me. On occasion I have been graciously referred to as intelligent, sensitive, and creative. (I confess I’ve been called less flattering things, as well.) One of the nicest compliments anyone has ever paid me was to say I listen well. This might not rate with being called sexy or successful, but I thought it was a wonderful thing to say.

From an early age I have been a “listening ear” for troubled friends and acquaintances—a role I am honored to fulfill. I have been told I am a source of comfort and reason. In the workplace I have often mediated disputes between management and staff or listened to their concerns. People who don’t even know me well will ask to meet me for dinner or a drink and end up pouring their heart out to me. They are sometimes surprised, wondering to themselves what made them confide in me with such candor. I realize there is something inside them they are struggling to express and if it can’t get out, they feel as if they will burst. I understand this and listen to them.

What makes some people better listeners than others? How can we learn to listen to others with our complete attention? There are some things we can always do to listen well—and there are also some things to avoid.

Information about listening from

Listening attentively benefits everyone

A most important question
A most important question
Turn off your phone, shut down the music and listen
Turn off your phone, shut down the music and listen
This person might say he's willing to listen, but his body language suggests otherwise
This person might say he's willing to listen, but his body language suggests otherwise
Listening well is a wonderful gift
Listening well is a wonderful gift
Listening attentively might bring emotions to the surface
Listening attentively might bring emotions to the surface
Most of us are grateful to have someone willing to listen
Most of us are grateful to have someone willing to listen
Listening with full attention benefits us all
Listening with full attention benefits us all

Twelve recommendations for listening well

1. Listen with interest and full attention. Kill the music. Turn off your television, telephone or computer. All of these things are distractions. Whether you devote five minutes or two hours to listening to someone, don’t do it half-heartedly. The message your undivided attention conveys is that what is being said is important.

2. Remain content to listen. Listening well might mean waiting until someone has completely finished speaking before it is your “turn”. If you are always thinking about what you are going to say next, you’re not really listening. Avoid having your next comment ready or rushing to fill a silence. It is okay to have your thoughts remain unexpressed.

3. Ask questions and repeat what you hear. Asking questions offers reassurance of your interest. Questions also ensure you correctly understand someone. If you do not grasp what someone is saying, they will quickly shut down. Open-ended questions encourage the other person to continue speaking while facilitating your comprehension. Paraphrasing also helps clarify what someone is saying and keep the conversation focused.  

4. Show courtesy in your posture and actions. Maintain eye contact without staring. Stand or sit with an open or inviting posture. Do not scowl, frown, fold your arms across your chest, tap your fingers or toes, check your watch or demonstrate other signs of impatience. If you say you are interested but your actions suggest otherwise, it is the nonverbal cues that will be believed.

5. Show courtesy in words and tone of voice. Speak in calm, relaxed tones that convey interest. Choose words that are not judgmental or flippant. It takes great trust to confide in you, and that trust will be forfeited if you feel the need to criticize. Listening well does not mean making a point or proving you are right. Do not betray someone’s trust with arguing, sarcasm or doubt.

6. Allow emotions to flow freely. When someone is telling you something important, it will frequently cause them to shout, cry, shake or laugh spontaneously. Don’t interrupt them if they express themselves in this way—allow them to feel their emotions without reservation or shame. Experiencing the emotions surrounding what they say is important and beneficial.

7. Do not react emotionally. The only correct response toward someone else’s problems is interest and concern. Indifference or boredom on your part will quickly make someone shut down. Hostility or other emotional responses will cause the other person to believe they have upset you. Don’t let someone else’s troubles bother you.

8. Do not offer suggestions or advice. Answers are no good unless they come from the person you are listening to. Even if someone asks for answers to their problems, they will be better served finding their own solutions (you may be blamed if you offer someone failed or incorrect advice—even if you are well-intentioned).

9. Do not talk about yourself. Do not equate what you hear with your own experiences—it will be perceived as minimizing someone else’s concerns or, perhaps worse, embracing an “I can top that” attitude. If someone is confiding in you on a deeply personal level, recognize that the conversation is about them—not you.

10. Interrupt patterns. Vindictive or hate-filled tirades may offer clues to someone’s feelings or problems, but they should not be encouraged or validated. Listening well doesn’t include suffering another’s hatred or bigotry. Mean or hateful statements may be an effort to reach underlying feelings. Ask questions to interrupt spiteful or malicious comments and get to the real issues.

11. Offer validations. Everyone has been hurt in situations where they have been ridiculed or belittled, and many people have endured this to the extent they will invalidate themselves. It is important to separate the person from the problem and demonstrate that you respect them, regardless of what their problems might be.

12. Draw attention outward when the conversation has ended. If you have listened to an outpouring of deeply-held feelings and emotions, bring the conversation to a lighter level before concluding it. Briefly talk about the weather, movies or anything that will draw attention away from negative thoughts and feelings and allow the other person to leave on a positive note.

A wonderful gift

People are always hoping someone will see something in them others don’t see, or help them to understand their hidden self. There is only one way to accomplish this, and that is by really listening to them. Listening well is one of the greatest gifts we can offer. Whenever we can do this for someone, we should.

I sometimes meet men or women who come to me and ask to talk. Perhaps I can tell from their voice that something is the matter. I may hear a story of suffering, or they might just come and sit with me—knowing I will listen is sometimes enough to find comfort. They are appreciative for someone to listen to them, but I am grateful as well—for the trust they give.

Thank you for listening.


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