A Psychologist’s guide to being an effective listener.

Effective listening is one of the most essential qualities in friendship. It is also one of the most attractive male qualities (hint, guys: listening can be a very sexy thing).

Being able to share with another person, without interruptions or judgmental attitudes is comforting and provides an outlet for anxiety and stress. It’s not surprising that many people seek therapy and literally ‘buy’ an hour of uninterrupted listening! We all need care and attention, but we need genuine, not illusory attention.

When was the last time anyone really listened to everything you wanted to say, without looking at their watch or starting to talk about themselves 5 minutes into the conversation?

For most of us, it has been a while. Effective listening is not just a rare occurrence. It is an endangered species! Some have never seen it! They’ve heard of it, as a mystical creature of old times, when people used to sit on their porches and just talk and listen, and then listen some more.

I think modern men and women are deprived of effective listening and desperately need it. So I encourage you to slow down for a moment, turn off your cell phone, instant messaging and twitter feeds and really devote yourself to the person you’re with … and just listen. Miracles will happen and you will give someone a wonderful gift. If you don’t believe me, consider it a thought experiment and just see what happens.

Here’s what you need to do:

1) Be silent

You might wonder how this can have any beneficial effect, but it is an essential component to effective listening and a basic counseling skill. You need to give the person enough time and space so they can really open up. Sometimes we just don’t shut up long enough to see what others have to say. A silent pause of 5, or even 10 seconds allows the other person time to collect their thought, without feeling hurried.

2) Focus on feelings

Enough talk about baseball games, Lady Gaga’s meat dress and the pilot episode of CSI (I know, I know, I like the show too). Enough ‘he said, she said’! It’s time to talk about the real things: the contents of our emotional world that have been neglected for so long. I find that when I ask people how they feel, they can’t even name their emotions. That’s how detached we’ve become from our own feelings. We’ve been mislead into believing that our feelings don’t matter and that we can “get over” them. It’s time to get back in touch with feelings. Don’t just ask about things, but the feelings that these things evoke (“How do you feel about it?”).

Remember, that feelings are neither right or wrong. Every individual is entitled to their feelings, and you don’t have to justify or negate them. What if tell you, “I get very angry when my colleague leaves his cup of coffee on my desk.” You might say: “I don’t see why something silly like that should anger you” or “Just bring it back to his desk.” To either of those responses I might become defensive or hostile. After all, I felt what I felt (silly or not) and I should not make excuses for my feelings.

3) Accept the person’s view

Each of us experiences reality slightly differently, because we live in different psychological worlds. The purpose of listening is not to ‘correct’ another viewpoint and make it sound more like mine. The purpose is to understand another viewpoint. As with feelings, everyone is entitled to their unique point of view. This is not to say healthier alternatives can’t be suggested later on, but listening and acceptance come first. A person who feels understood, rather than attacked, is more likely to reexamine their own perspective and change it.

4) Avoid giving advice

When we begin to share, many people assume they must solve our problem (this is more characteristic of men than women). Remember that the goal of listening is to understand and accept, and not solve problems.

Psychotherapist Eric Berne expled the ‘advice giving game’ and established the pattern we’ve all seen: A: “I have this problem.” B: “Why don’t you do this and that?” A: “Yes, but ...(reasons why the suggestion won’t work).” B:”Then why don’t you … (another suggestion).” A: “Yes, but…

Sounds familiar?

The reason why this happens is either there is something else to the story the person has not shared, or there are other reasons they avoid your advice. Time is much wiser spend hearing all about the problem and the feelings around that problem than trying to solve it in a haste. Don’t assume that person doesn’t need help with their problem. Oh, yes, they do, but this is not the way to help them.

Of course, if someone explicitly asks for advice, that is a whole different story.

5) Reflect on their thoughts and feelings

Every psychologist will tell you that one of the most effective things you can do to offer support is providing feedback by restating what has just been said. This seemingly repetitive manner actually helps the person who is talking identify their feelings and thought better, especially when they feel lost and overwhelmed. It also makes sure that you understand them. If you paraphrase what they’ve just said, and they tell you, “Oh, no, that’s not what I meant,” the miscommunication is eliminated right then and there.

6) Ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions (“What would you like to do this weekend?”) encourage free expression, whereas closed questions (“Do you want to go skiing this weekend?) only require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

On a day-to-day basis we feel so rushed, there is just not enough time to ask open-ended questions. ‘Hey, I’m making plans to go skiing this weekend and just want to know if you’re in. (I don’t have time to explore what you want to do.)’ I get that, but when you really want to show someone that you care about their thoughts, feelings and plans, you need to ask open-ended questions.

7) Clarify the problem

In order to discover a solution, you need to identify and define the problem. If I’ve told you I get really angry when my colleague leaves his coffee on my desk and you’ve suggested I should just bring the cup back to his desk, that is not very helpful. The chances are that the problem extends much deeper than that. My anger might be provoked by how much I dislike my colleague in general, or how dissatisfied I am with my job. More adequate solutions would be talking to my manager, going to a different department or just finding another job, none of which will be achieved if I put the infamous cup of coffee back where it belongs. An effective listener can help me clarify the problem by doing all of the above.

I don’t think you can or have to solve anyone’s problems, but you can empower people so they can take care of themselves, and that’s often done by mere listening.

Image: Joseph Gilbert

4 comments for “A Psychologist’s guide to being an effective listener.

  1. Naiden
    October 1, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Oh my, didn’t you just open a can of worms! :) BTW, us in the media business are also trained to ask questions and listen, especially when reporting or interviewing and let our readers make their own opinion. So how does that guide above make you feel? :)

  2. Dima
    October 2, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Why, is there anyone you need to listen to more closely? ;)
    Yes, you media business people are good at asking questions and listening, but tend to have a different mindset while doing so. Outside of work, try using the above =)
    How does that make ME feel? Thank you for asking ;)
    I feel hopeful it will encourage and inspire people who read it. Simple listening (the right way, that is) is such an easy way to help someone. Practically, you don’t need to do anything, but grant some of your time and undivided attention.
    Happy listening!

  3. Tenyo
    October 4, 2010 at 10:37 am

    I can do that.

  4. Dima
    October 4, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Sure you can! Everyone can do that, if they try.

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